>Once considered a “magic mineral” for its ability to add heat resistance to a variety of materials, asbestos was used widely in factories, shipbuilding, and construction throughout much of the twentieth century. New Bern has had an unfortunate history with asbestos, though sadly, it is no different from many other cities across the country in that respect.
The Weyerhaeuser Company brought their business to North Carolina in 1957, opening or taking over 16 facilities across the state, including a pulp mill in New Bern. The mill employed hundreds of people, and workers quoted in the Raleigh News and Observer say that Weyerhaeuser treated its employees well – save for the swirling clouds of dust that saturated the air in the mill. The machines that treated the pulp and made the paper built up significant amounts of heat, and in order to ensure against fire, they were insulated with materials that contained asbestos. Normal wear and tear on the machines would break down the insulating materials, sending clouds of paper and asbestos particles into the air.
When contained in material like insulation, asbestos is not harmful. However, when pulverized into dust, as was the case in paper mills, the needle-like fibers of the mineral can lodge in the lungs, causing health problems such as lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Symptoms of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the lining of the lungs, take between 20 and 50 years to manifest after exposure, so many of the individuals who worked at paper mills for years are just now realizing they are sick. Unfortunately, since the asbestos dust can be carried home in clothes or hair, it is not just the workers but also their families who are at risk.
At the time, workers were thankful for the fireproofing qualities of asbestos. However, documents dated as early as 1972 show that Weyerhaeuser employers knew of the dangers of asbestos. Two years later, the company instituted programs to monitor the health of their employees – but did not explain the health hazard or take any steps to reduce exposure. Masks and respirators were used in the mills, but only for chemical hazards, and monthly safety meetings mentioned nothing about asbestos. The health monitoring programs petered out in the 1980s, and it wasn’t until 1989 that Weyerhaeuser began removing asbestos from the mills, and the process of removal continued until at least 2002, during which time employees continued to work there.
In 1998, workers suffering from asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other diseases brought a lawsuit against the company. Though Weyerhauser did eventually settle in about 75 percent of the claims, it refused to pay unless the defendants had cancer, excluding those with asbestosis. Throughout the U.S., Weyerhaeuser is responsible or partially responsible for 18 Superfund clean-up sites, according to the EPA. While the company has cleaned up its act in recent years, this is of little comfort to those former workers already suffering from mesothelioma symptoms.
Though asbestos is no longer used in factories or new construction materials, it can still be found in older buildings. In recent years, both the Cherry Point Officer’s Club and a building at Craven Community College tested positive for asbestos and had to be closed while the substance was removed. If you suspect there may be asbestos-containing materials in your home or office, do not disturb them; they are not likely to be dangerous if intact. If the materials do appear to be damaged or worn, contact a licensed asbestos abatement team to remove them.
Guest Blogger: Tiffany Best