Perhaps you’ve read recent news reports on asbestos and the health threats it poses to school children throughout Belize — but how familiar are you with this building material and its highly toxic nature? While many Belizeans understand that asbestos is a dangerous material, it is important that everyone is fully aware of the consequences of breathing it in.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral with some exemplary qualities. Its resistance to heat and electrical damage, as well as its affordability, led to its widespread use as a building material over the past few decades.
But this “miracle mineral,” as it was once called, can cause life-endangering health complications several decades after exposure. This makes asbestos a formidable threat to younger generations, one that can manifest as a serious respiratory illness many years later as they approach old age.
Although generally safe when in good condition, damaged asbestos products release microscopic fibers into the air. The fibers can become trapped in the lungs of people who breathe them. It can then spur the development of various cancers, including lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer, as well as non-cancerous lung conditions like asbestosis and pleural thickening.
It’s true that asbestos can potentially save lives in the event of a fire, but its risks to our health outweigh the safety benefits in buildings that have fallen into disrepair, like the decades-old St. Peter Claver Primary School in Punta Gorda, for example.
Here, damaged asbestos roofing has begun to release toxic fibers into classrooms, causing skin and breathing problems among students and teachers. A similar problem affected August Pine Ridge RC School in the Orange Walk District earlier this year.
In response, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education have recommended the removal of asbestos roofs on schools nationwide. Replacing asbestos-laden buildings can be costly — a $298,000 project at August Pine Ridge and upwards of $5 million for St. Peter Claver — but it is a small price to pay to ensure our children will make it to old age free of health problems that are easily preventable.
Joey Rosenberg researches and writes about asbestos, the diseases it causes and the treatment of those diseases for The Mesothelioma Center.