Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

06 October 2017

Asbestos Cancer Victim Gives Advice on Workplace Safety for Tech Students

We thank Virgil Anderson for having contacted us to let us know about this excellent site on asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.  He shares his story to warn others of the risks of being around asbestos and help keep people safe.  

Asbestos Cancer Victim Gives Advice on Workplace Safety for Tech Students

As young men and women choosing to work in the skilled trades you have bright futures ahead of you. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, and other skilled workers will always be in demand. My name is Virgil Anderson and I spent my career working in construction, demolition, and automotive work. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was working around asbestos.

Today I am suffering the consequences of that exposure and living with a diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer. Although the risks of being exposed to asbestos are not nearly as great as they were in my day, I want to address young people going into the kinds of trades that could include working around asbestos. I want you to have the information that I didn’t have. You can work safely in any of these trades, but you need to be aware that asbestos may be around you and that you have a right to a safe workplace and proper training for recognizing and working safely with asbestos.

Asbestos and its Hazards

Asbestos is a mineral that has been used in a number of construction and industrial applications. It is mined out of the ground and used because it is cheap and because of its special properties: it resists fire and heat, it insulates from electricity, and it is strong but lightweight. It has been used mostly in the construction of buildings and ships, in insulation, heating and cooling systems, electrical systems, flooring materials, roofing materials, adhesives, and more. It has also been used in automobiles and airplanes.

Asbestos is made up of small fibers, which can come loose and get into the air. When you inhale these fibers they can get lodged in the tissues in your body and cause damage over many years. Not everyone will get sick from exposure to asbestos, but certain illnesses are nearly always caused by asbestos fibers. These include a progressive and incurable lung disease called asbestosis and the deadly type of cancer known as mesothelioma.

My Story and Struggle with Cancer

I was born and raised in Williamson, West Virginia. Starting in high school I worked in demolition and excavations, which meant a lot of hard, physical work tearing down buildings. Sometimes we worked with our hands, pulling insulation out of walls, and other times we used sledge hammers and saws to break buildings down.

These buildings were full of asbestos: in the insulation in the walls and ceilings, around pipes and ducts, in the heating and cooling systems, and around electrical wiring. We didn’t know any better at the time, but all that ripping, tearing, and sawing sent fibers of asbestos into the air where it could stay for days. I worked day after day in clouds of dust that included asbestos fibers.

Later, I worked in the automotive industry for a company that installed, removed, and repaired hood liners. I also worked on brakes and clutches, repairing and replacing components like brake shoes and drums. All of these automotive parts contained asbestos. Years of working in that environment, tearing and cutting hood liners and being around the dust that comes out when you take apart brakes and clutches, exposed me to even more asbestos fibers.

Now, at 50, I am living with asbestos cancer because of all this workplace exposure. I was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, the type of asbestos cancer that attacks the tissue around the lungs. One year after my diagnosis I went from being active and healthy to sick and immobile. I am very limited in what I can do. I can’t work, and even walking is difficult. I have to use a portable oxygen tank to get around. I am undergoing chemotherapy, but I am not a good candidate for surgery because the cancer has already spread to my lymph nodes.

All those years I spent working around asbestos, and I never knew what the risks were. I wish now that I had been warned. It is possible to work around asbestos and be safe with the right precautions, safety equipment, and training, but no one told me about it. But I’m hopeful that by getting my story out there I can warn others of the risks of being around asbestos and help keep people safe.


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