Waking up to dormant asbestos illnesses
By Rebecca Deusser, Sentinel and Enterprise. August 2004
Lee Brackett says a lifetime of “bad work choices” have made him sick.
From service as an engine room repairman on a U.S. Navy destroyer to working as a car mechanic, Brackett unknowingly inhaled asbestos for more than 40 years.
“I had no idea (it was dangerous),” said Brackett, 62, of Gardner. “They didn’t tell us anything.”
Brackett’s close exposure to asbestos has given him mesothelioma — a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs or abdomen caused only by the fiber-like minerals.
“When we were blowing out breaks, you’d get a nasty taste in your mouth,” Brackett said with slow, deliberate breaths. “There was crap all in the air; you couldn’t see to the other side of the shop.”
While the popularity of asbestos use has long since faded, the extent of the health problems its imposed on veterans and laborers has only now come to light.
A recent report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found deaths from asbestos exposure has increased sharply over the past three decades.
“We expect the (number of) deaths to increase for the next decade or so,” said Dr. Mike Atfield, an epidemiologist in the CDC National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and lead author on the study.
Atfield said the swell of deaths is due to a lag time, as much as 45 years, it takes from exposure to asbestos fibers to developing an illness and dying.
Use of asbestos in the United States surged during and after World War II, with a peak in 1975, according to the NIOSH study.
Asbestos is a generic term for fiber-like minerals that have been mined for their heat-insulating properties, found in products such as boilers, breaks and pipes.
Asbestos fibers can become airborne, and once in the air, they can be inhaled into the lungs causing serious health problems such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Asbestosis is a lung disease where fibers are trapped in lung tissue, leading to severe scarring that causes the lungs to fail.
The NIOSH study also found other forms of asbestos-related diseases, called pneumoconioses, are on the decline in the United States, while asbestosis is on the rise.
Roughly 2,000 to 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Discovering the consequences
Overall, asbestos sickness is rare in the United States, said experts who spoke with the Sentinel & Enterprise, although its effects are devastating.
Brackett, who lived much of his life in Ashburnham, worked on car breaks and clutches for more than 30 years, literally covering him in asbestos at times.
“We’d look like coal miners,” he said. “Covered in black from the top of your head down.”
Brackett recalled trying to push a car in fall 2001, when he “ran out of gas,” and could not catch his breath.
“He had a dry, hacking cough that would not go away,” said Virginia Brackett, Lee’s wife.
A series of doctor’s visits revealed three-quarters of Brackett’s right lung had been consumed by fluid.
By winter, Brackett was receiving treatments in Boston for cancer.
Brackett underwent extensive surgery in March 2002, where doctors removed his entire right lung, the lining around his lung and heart and replaced his diaphragm with a gortex one.
“I had never heard of (mesothelioma),” he said. “I was just a dummy out there doing my job, providing for my family. Meanwhile it was killing you, and big business and the government knew about it.”
Medical studies linking certain types of asbestos to health problems started to surface in Europe in 1906, Atfield said.
“It was accepted that it was toxic when found in the lungs,” Atfield said.
As Americans started to display the health consequences of asbestos in the 1980s, lawsuits against employers and manufacturers soared.
Little risk today
Risk of exposure to asbestos today is quite small, although the minerals do exist in old buildings and schools throughout the country.
In Fitchburg, the city’s building department is developing a careful plan to tear down the former F.W. Webb Building on North Street, which contains asbestos, said building commissioner Michael Gallant.
“When a building is torn down, environmental hazards have to be removed,” Gallant said. “It’s best not to touch it and to avoid fibers in the air.”
Gallant said asbestos in old buildings are typically left alone or wrapped in a protective covering.
Atfield emphasized current workers should remain aware of potential exposure to asbestos and other harmful substances.
“Workers should be aware of what they are exposed to and try to avoid those exposures,” he said.
Dr. Oren Schaefer, a pulmonologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, said public fear about asbestos are legitimate, but risk of exposure is low.
“The public’s concern is about schools and the workplace, and really we’re talking about buildings (built) after World War II,” he said.
Schaefer said the lifetime risk for premature cancer death from asbestos exposure in schools is six per 1 million of 5- to 18-year-olds exposed.
Office buildings pose a slighter risk of four per 1 million people exposed.
Schaefer added however, 2,000 per 1 million people exposed in known asbestos environments, which are now controlled by the government, are at risk for cancer.
But the lasting impact of asbestos use in the United States has yet to peak.
For Brackett, retirement plans for travel and continuing his passion for photography have been “curtailed” by the disabilities asbestos and mesothelioma have caused.
Brackett was cancer-free for two years and three months, but this summer doctors detected the disease is back and it’s spread to his abdomen.
“I was always very active,” Brackett said as tears welled in his eyes, and his breathing became a bit strained. “It drives me nuts.”
Virginia Brackett said the couple goes through “a range of emotions.”
“He got up and went to work every day and came back home,” she said. “If he knew he could have changed jobs. (The disease) is hitting those who have worked all their lives.”