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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Learning from Asbestos
distributed 1/10/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Eileen Abbattista, of Denver, Colorado. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

During the prayerful days of Advent last month, I was provided with the opportunity to reflect on ... asbestos abatement.

My up-close and personal experience with the removal of hazardous building materials was not a profound spiritual experience. In fact, it led to some very non-spiritual moments. But those weeks of frustration and annoyance did lead me toward ethical reflections that extend beyond this particular situation. There are insights here that speak to things like global climate change, and the way we do theology and ethics.

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I did not volunteer to undergo experiential education about asbestos abatement, the amazingly complex and expensive process of removing building materials that contain the hazardous mineral fibers. The church which donates office space to Eco-Justice Ministries is doing some major remodeling, and they had to get rid of the stuff in areas immediately around my office.

As with many buildings from around 1960, asbestos was present here in many different materials. It was used in insulation around hot water pipes, flocked onto the ceiling, and used as a paint primer on cement block walls. In areas where construction would disturb the asbestos surface, highly trained crews had to be brought in for the removal process. (The Dilbert comic strip has dealt with asbestos issues!) The job is expensive enough that only critical areas were abated. Narrow strips of ceilings had the "popcorn" texture removed, leaving most of the room with the sprayed-on surface for some later generation to deal with.

Once the asbestos is disturbed, and the tiny little fibers can drift in the air, it becomes a serious health risk. Long-term exposure is tied to lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other diseases with complicated names. So the removal process needs to contain all the dust and fluff. Vast quantities of plastic sheeting and duct tape are used to seal off the target areas -- over doors and windows, but also across floors and walls. The workers (who are the ones with real health risks, since they're exposed to it every day) wear full-body hazardous material suits and giant respirators. Large fans with special filters blow air outside from the room being treated, creating "negative air pressure" so that nothing will drift into the rest of the building. In our case, this was done during days of sub-zero weather, blowing heated air out of the church and sucking frigid air in. Brrrrr.

Thankfully, that part of the remodeling project is done, and I only have to deal with the normal mess and bedlam of major construction going on all around me.

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The days of barricaded hallways, moon-suits, and powerful machines chiseling off the surface 1/2" of cement block walls (grrrrr!) gave me plenty of time and occasions to think about why otherwise well-meaning people would have put so much asbestos into this building 50 years ago. Back in 1960, the hazards of asbestos were known.

Some awareness of the danger of processing asbestos goes back thousands of years. "As early of 1922 there was a suspicion in the U.S. that asbestos could be the source of various health problems." But the helpful attributes of the mineral in buildings, ships and autos drove increasing use of asbestos in industry through the early and mid 20th century. The fact that it was a highly profitable product led asbestos-producing companies to downplay and hide information about the hazards. As one source said, "despite consistent health warnings, asbestos mining and manufacturing was an engine that could not be stopped."

In the US, restrictions on the use of asbestos didn't start to be applied until 1973, and then gradually expanded. The ceiling treatments were banned in 1978, but ... "in order to minimize economic hardship to suppliers and installers, existing inventories of asbestos-bearing texturing materials were exempt from the ban, so it is possible to find asbestos in popcorn ceilings that were applied through the 1980s."

So now this church has spent thousands and thousands of dollars to remove asbestos put here in 1960. Experts at the time certainly knew that there were dangers involved with the material, but those facts may not have been widely known. It was seen as a cheap and versatile material, and the benefits were thought to outweigh to costs -- especially since diseases might not show up in the laborers for 15-40 years. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but half a century later, we're stuck with enormous costs and complications to get rid of the stuff.

I see some irritating parallels between asbestos and fossil fuels. In both cases, a product with known risks has been widely used. The well-documented dangers are concealed and disputed by those with a vested interest in their production. The benefits of amazing substances are considered far more important than the hazards, and that calculation is convenient because the problems are diffuse and won't show up for generations.

Like asbestos, fossil fuels are dangerous in their extraction (whether coal mining, oil drilling, or gas fracking), in their immediate use (with mercury pollution, acid rain, particulates and smog), and with long-term consequences (especially climate change). These fuels, too, seem to be "an engine that could not be stopped", and our global society is using more and more of them.

But I look at the history, and I see that the asbestos engine was stopped. Most uses were banned, and alternatives were found. Public policies finally were put in place that said that the risks were unacceptable, and profitable businesses were shut down. It took far too long, but reason and prudence finally prevailed. And now we look back and wonder how they could have been so irresponsible in leaving us with an ongoing problem.

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I've checked, and the Bible does not mention asbestos. The biblical worldview didn't have a category for that kind of pollution, and there were not ethical guidelines about the widespread use of chemicals and materials that would cause damage and harm for decades. That's not a problem they encountered.

Reading scripture will not necessarily stir us to consider some of the most pressing theological and ethical issues of our day. The prophets didn't talk about toxic waste, Jesus didn't tell parables about automobiles, and Paul didn't address urban sprawl and exploding population. We're having to deal with moral categories that are new and challenging. We have to raise new questions, and then go to trusted sources -- scripture, tradition, science, and today's wise prophets -- to discern how we are to live.

That's the premise that underlies a new initiative from Eco-Justice Ministries, Not Ordinary Times, which calls churches to spend six months asking those hard questions, and digging deeply into our sources to find new and faithful guidance. I urge you to check out the website, and I invite you to join in the process of developing and conducting this extended season of relevant worship.

So what can we find when we ask scripture about asbestos and fossil fuels? I find one answer about intergenerational justice and precautionary prudence in a recurring theme in Deuteronomy. Five times, laws about just and compassionate behavior are reinforced with the message, "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this." (24:18) The memory of long-ago exploitation and liberation is a reminder to care now for the poor and the oppressed.

So for today, remember that our ancestors stuck us with asbestos and other pollution, and that wise legislators finally banned them. Therefore, we should be just and prudent now, and work quickly to free our descendants from the pollution of fossil fuels, and the industries that enslave us with hidden risks and pervasive danger. That's an ancient theological and ethical principle that does apply in these "not ordinary times."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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