Local stories help provide closure and education about dangers of asbestos
By Jada Smook and Tracy McNew
On August 3, 2016 cousins Conor Lewis and Zack Johnson started a cross-country cycling trip in Astoria, Oreg., and from there, they rode all the way to New York City. Their 4,800 mile cycling trip finished in mid Oct. of 2016.
Lewis and Johnson started their journey after suddenly losing their grandmother to pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
They set out to gain a better understanding of the disease, and they soon realized that few people know about the dangers of asbestos and the diseases that it can cause. Mesothelioma may be a common theme in lawyer’s television commercials, but, Johnson said, it’s not well understood.
Lewis and Johnson had never done anything like this before, so the planning for their trip was complex. They started by contacting people in asbestos healthcare around the country to help them plan their route and stops along the way.
“We tried to plan our route towards people with asbestos stories, so we could get to know them and get their stories out. We kind of just played it by ear and hoped for the best.” Johnson told The Montanian during an interview last Friday.
Libby’s CARD Clinic was just one of their stops. Throughout their journey the cousins interviewed a total of 25 people. “Each person shared unique stories of how their lives were impacted by asbestos exposure,” said Johnson.
The end product of their trip is a documentary film titled Dirty Laundry which premiered at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival last month.
“We wanted to get the honest truth out about everyone’s stories. I was very proud with our documentary and the way that it turned out. I defiantly think that the trip was well worth it,” said Johnson.
The film also gives information about how asbestos has impacted particular communities, including Libby, Mont. and another town greatly impacted by asbestos, Ambler, Penn. Both Libby and Ambler have experienced EPA cleanups of asbestos contamination.
Although Libby is now widely considered clean, opportunities to educate others about possible exposures remain important. Ore from W.R. Grace’s Libby mine was shipped all over the country for decades, and the asbestos-contaminated attic insulation that was made from that ore likely remains in tens of thousands of attics throughout the U.S.
Johnson and Lewis hope their film will help educate people about the illnesses asbestos can cause, and help inform people to prevent future asbestos exposures.
“I really connected with the citizens in Libby and just fell in love with the people and how beautiful it is there. There’s just a really good crowd of people in Libby,” said Johnson about his experience here.
Lewis and Johnson’s documentary film, Dirty Laundry, is only available for viewing at film festivals for the next few months, but the cousins hope to eventually get the documentary out on Netflix and Hulu for everyone to see.
The two are also planning on partnering with asbestos awareness groups to schedule viewings and help spread much-needed awareness.
The film comes at a good time according to Linda Reinstein of the nonprofit group Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO).
Reinstein, whose husband died of mesothelioma, advocates for a ban on asbestos which is still legally imported in the U.S. On March 29 she and other stakeholders met in Washington D.C. with the U.S. EPA. Their meeting was to express concern about how asbestos legacy use and Libby Amphibole were not included in the agency’s Scope of the Risk Evaluation for Asbestos document published in June of last year.
EPA’s document was published as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform which was signed into law in 2016. The law identified asbestos as a priority chemical to evaluate for risk to human health. Since asbestos is a known carcinogen, it was hoped, Reinstein said, that this law would effectively ban asbestos. That doesn’t seem to be the direction things are going though.
The asbestos risk evaluation that was done did not include ongoing exposure from legacy asbestos products (asbestos already in place) or installed attic insulation containing Libby Amphibole asbestos.
In a blog on March 30 Reinstein wrote, “To exclude these important sources of exposure and risk would fail to address severe threats to public health and the environment.”
She reports that her group was successful in getting EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to agree to reexamine legacy asbestos products and Libby Amphibole.
According to the CARD Clinic’s Outreach Specialist, Dusti Thompson, “What Zack, Conor, and Linda are doing is good for everyone. Libby may be moving on, but it’s important to help others avoid the problems we’ve had and our knowledge and experience are valuable tools to help them.”
Montana’s U.S. Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester also contribute to the cause. They recently supported a resolution to raise public awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure. With their support, last month the U.S. Senate passed their fourteenth annual resolution recognizing April 1 through 7 as National Asbestos Awareness week.
“Too many folks have suffered or lost their lives to asbestos-related illness,” said Senator Tester. “In Libby and Troy, we have seen first hand the devastation that asbestos can cause in a community. By making education and awareness a priority, we can protect our families from this silent killer.”