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Asbestos removal is a tough job, but Covid-19 makes it harder

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It was just before dawn when seven bulky men in T-shirts and sweatpants gathered outside a towering glass building on Lexington Avenue in New York. Marcelo Crespo, a 41-year-old with bright green eyes and a goatee, waved the group over to a white company car and handed each man a stack of protective equipment: face mask and respirators, full body overalls, overshoes, hard hats, duct tape.

The men clutched their bundles, went in through the back door of the building, and took the elevator 32 stories up to the roof. The day before, they had sealed the work area like a giant Ziploc bag and covered a large part of the roof with protective plastic structures to protect it from the outdoors. Before Crespo went through the transparent film, he rattled the scaffolding and checked its stability. He made a sign of the cross on his chest and whispered a prayer that God would protect them all. Warning signs plastered the makeshift walls, boxes and equipment. Attention. Caution. Authorized personnel only.

It could have been a scene from the movie outbreak, but the work took place in Manhattan a few months before the Covid-1

9 pandemic. With every breath, the men still risked serious health problems – even death – from the microscopic asbestos particles that swirled in the air.

Asbestos removal workers were seen as essential long before the pandemic. Property owners are required by law to call in Asian teams to remove asbestos for any construction, renovation or retrofitting. In the United States, some asbestos jobs even accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, as several cities took advantage of the closings of public spaces to plan renovations. And there is a lot more of it on the horizon after the coronavirus: The New York Climate Mobilization Act passed last spring stipulates that the largest buildings in the city reduce their total emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050, installing new windows, insulation and installation other retrofits to become more energy efficient.

While timing makes sense for cities, it is not so good for mitigation workers, whose occupational risks make them particularly vulnerable to serious complications from Covid-19.

Judging by his Asbestos is a useful material just because of its physical properties: the long, fibrous crystals of the naturally occurring mineral absorb sound and resist fire, heat and electricity. In ancient Greek the word for “asbestos” means “indelible”. By the end of the 19th century, companies in Europe and North America competed for the right to mine it. Asbestos appeared everywhere: in concrete, bricks, pipes, floors, roofs, and sofas. It was used as insulation in schools, hospitals, and theaters. Asbestos was used as snow on film sets in the 1930s, covering Dorothy with The Wizard of Oz.

As it gained popularity, doctors noticed that relatively young asbestos miners were short of breath and suffered from a condition known as pulmonary fibrosis. When asbestos fibers get into the air, the small, needle-like filaments can get into the body via the lungs and skin, accumulate in internal organs and build up scar tissue over decades. By the time symptoms appear, people may already have permanent lung disease, genetic damage, or cancerous growths.

In the United States, around 39,000 workers die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Approximately 3,000 of these deaths are due to mesothelioma, a malignant form of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos. And it doesn’t take much: “Mesothelioma can occur with relatively low exposure,” said Victor Roggli, professor of pathology at Duke University.

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