Health & Environmental Impacts of Asbestos

Childhood is supposed to be carefree. One of long summer days spent playing in the sprinklers, watching tv in the late afternoon to cool down and relax after a day at the beach, spending time with friends, and not having a care in the world. That is the fantasy anyway, but not the reality for thousands of kids in this country. In many urban areas, summer is a time of long days in hot apartments, due to poor outdoor air quality caused by smog – an air pollutant that is created when car exhaust mixes with sunlight. For populations in areas bordering freeways and other large car thoroughfares, the summer season of road trips, high-temperature days and smog can seem inescapable.

Author: Heather Von St. James

Author: Heather Von St. James

On increasingly hot days, parents often keep their children inside to avoid this harmful outdoor environmental toxin, which has been shown to worsen asthma symptoms. But many parents are unaware of a harmful indoor air pollutant that is only recently being reviewed as a health risk by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and although we were far from rich, I had many comforts that I took for granted. The air in my forest-adjacent small town was pristine. But, there was one invisible danger lurking that I had no clue about, one that would come back to haunt my family and change my life forever 30 years after being exposed.

When I was little, my dad took a job at a construction company. He didn’t have much experience, but they promised on-the-job training. In the early years, my dad did a lot of the cleanup and menial jobs that inexperienced workers had to do. Those jobs included sanding drywall joint compound and then removing the dust after. He also did a number of demolition jobs that included tearing out insulation on boilers, ceiling tiles, floor tiles and walls inside old buildings. He would come home from work covered in a fine grey dust. His clothes, especially his work jacket, were encrusted with this greyish white pollutant.  

Unbeknownst to us at the time, that dust was full of asbestos. Millions of fibers of the toxic substance became airborne with every stroke of the sandpaper on the joint compound and swirled around in the air when he swept. It landed on his coat and began to accumulate over the months he worked in those old buildings. He would bring the deadly fibers home, where I would grab his coat and wear it to do my chores around the yard. I wore it outside to feed my rabbits, I wore it when I raked and played in the leaves in the fall, I wore it to go get the mail across the street from the mailbox. Each time I wore it, I breathed in the deadly fibers.


Thirty years later I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. I had no idea, nor did my dad, that his job as a contractor would make me sick when I was only 36 years old, just 3 ½ months after my only baby was born.

Most homes built before 1980 are likely to have asbestos in some way, shape or form in them. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. It causes a myriad of health conditions including mesothelioma. The shocking reality of this pollutant is that most asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period from exposure to diagnosis. Mine was just under 30 years. Mesothelioma has a grim prognosis, most people die within 18 months of their diagnosis, even fewer make it to 5 years. I’m one of the lucky ones. Due to early detection and incredibly invasive treatments, I’ve lived over 11 years since my diagnosis. Unfortunately, I lost my left lung, but it ultimately saved my life.

The argument for not removing asbestos is that it is harmless if it is left alone, or as long as it is covered up. The more compelling argument is that it’s only a matter of time before someone doing a remodel disturbs the pollutant or the home is damaged by fire or some other disaster.

The third wave of mesothelioma exposure is happening now. First, it was afflicting the individuals who worked with it. Then it was wreaking secondhand exposure on people like me. Now, it is threatening individuals who undertake “do-it-yourself” projects or remodels on their aging homes.  

In March, the Centers for Disease Control reported mesothelioma cases are peaking instead of tapering off. This comes at a time when there are some –though not enough – regulations for asbestos use. That is why now more than ever we need to be addressing this issue on with full force.

Asbestos is not simply an issue of public health, it is a social justice and an environmental issue, and the sooner we wake up and realize it, the more lives can be saved. I vowed that if I survived this cancer, I would do my part to educate people and advocate for a better, healthier future. And I need your help.

The EPA is reviewing the health and environmental risks of asbestos and you have the opportunity to make your voice heard about the issues involved with asbestos. Send your comments to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by September 19th, 2017 to tell the EPA that this issue is important to you.

And I hope you will join me on September 26th to raise awareness for Mesothelioma Awareness Day.

Heather Von St. James