The best thing about asbestos is the worst thing about asbestos.
Its fibers are nearly indestructible, which is why the mineral was such a desirable element in fireproofing and insulation material. Once someone inhales the fibers, they cannot be broken down or dislodged. Over time, the lungs become inflamed, scarred and finally too stiff to force adequate oxygen into the bloodstream.
Called asbestosis, this condition is the most common illness associated with asbestos. In a worst-case scenario, it literally chokes its victim to death. There is no cure for the disease, and it usually takes 20 to 30 years before it is detectable.
Asbestosis, though, is not the only disease associated with asbestos. In rare cases, asbestos causes mesothelioma, a cancer in the lining of the lungs or stomach that is terminal. Few people live more than two years after a diagnosis. In the United States, the only known cause for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos has also been linked to throat cancer and colon cancer. Much more common is lung cancer. Those exposed to asbestos are said to have as much as five times the chances of getting lung cancer as those not exposed.
In the recent trial of asbestos manufacturers in Baltimore Circuit Court, the defendants pointed out that many plaintiffs had been smokers. Who was to say, the manufacturers argued, that the lung cancer many workers developed was caused by asbestos, not smoking?
The medical evidence provided a disturbing answer. Smokers have ten times the risk of developing lung cancer as non-smokers. Smokers who are also exposed to asbestos are at much greater risk, increasing the chances of developing lung cancer by as much as 90 times.
This was particularly disheartening news for those who worked at Sparrows Point, where asbestos was ubiquitous.
"At Bethlehem Steel," says Dr. Stuart Jacobs, a pulmonologist at Mercy Medical Center, "the culture was that almost everyone smoked."