Couldn't Catch His Breath

A young man worked for a short time, a long time ago, at a vermiculite processing plant in the Portland, Oregon area. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that has been mined and processed for over 80 years. It is used in the insulation, construction, horticulture and agriculture industries. This substance is plentiful worldwide and is mined on almost every continent.

There are many productive and safe mines in the United States. Unfortunately, certain types of vermiculite also contain asbestos. Vermiculite from the mines in Libby, Montana contained a type of asbestos known as tremolite. The Libby, Montana mines were closed in 1990 due to health hazards related to asbestos exposure.

As a young laborer in Libby in 1951 and 1952, the man of this story worked shoveling wheelbarrows full of vermiculite into large vats and hoppers. Little did he know that this activity would contaminate his lungs with tremolite, a highly lethal type of asbestos. Although the air was filled with vermiculite (and asbestos) dust the whole time he worked at the processing plant, no one suggested he wear a respirator. As a young man, it never occurred to him there could be a serious danger.

Forty years later, he is paying for the two years he worked with vermiculite and asbestos. Due to asbestosis, an asbestos related disease that causes large areas of scar tissue in the lungs, he literally cannot catch his breath. The first time it happened, he was scared to death and had to call 911. As the asbestosis has progressed, he has begun to cough up blood routinely, and has had to call 911 on many occasions.

His heart attack in 1998 was attributed to his poor lung capacity. Now his lungs can transfer only half of the oxygen they could a decade ago. The heart, having to work extra hard to get oxygen to the body, was under great strain and failed, causing the heart attack. He has recovered from the heart attack and doctors have provided inhalers to open his airwaves, but that is all that can be done.

Fortunately so far there has been no sign of the asbestos related cancer, malignant mesothelioma. He and his wife live in fear of that diagnosis. Also, his wife, who routinely shook dust from his clothing while washing his uniform 40 years ago, now also has trouble breathing. Asbestos has dramatically affected how this couple will round out their lives.


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