Asbestos Can Be Hazardous to Health, Nerves

On the first day of the long-awaited remont of my St. Petersburg apartment, I decided to swing by to make sure that the workers were still showing signs of life and had not already fallen into a state of suspended animation. On arrival, I was rather reassured to hear a lot of banging and clattering coming from the apartment.

Inside, I discovered one of the guys, an Armenian named Garik, fastidiously knocking out a section of a wall. The material he was ripping away had a curious gray, cloth-like appearance and was whipping up quite a dust storm.

"What's that stuff?" I asked, coughing.

"Asbest," replied Garik, dipping his finger into the crumbling partition, tearing off a wad and then waving it under my nose.

My jaw dropped open just wide enough to take in a long, deep gulp. "Asbestos," I said incredulously. Of the many words that formed in my mind at this moment, only three were uttered: "It can't be."

In response, Garik whipped out a lighter and held the flame against a tulame against a tuft of the material protruding from one of the boards. It didn't burn. "Yep. It's asbestos," he said, almost cheerily. He then turned his attention back to his work. With every fragment he tore away, a tiny mushroom cloud of dust rose gently into the air.

It is difficult to fully describe the impact of this discovery. Like many Westerners, I grew up watching documentaries that warned of the dangers of this material, reputed to be right up there with raw nuclear waste as one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man. I still vividly remember shots of aged, weeping American auto workers who were dying of mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lung lining caused exclusively by asbestos. The disease had risen up to claim them 20, 30, even 60 years after their exposure.

Entire schools in the United States had been evacuated just because naughty kids had thrown pencils at the asbestos tiling. As late as '91, the multimillion dollar Berlaymont building in ly abandoned because it was found to contain asbestos. It still stands empty.

And here in St. Petersburg, my wife and I (and the cat) were living in what tests would later confirm was a veritable storehouse of the stuff. Practically the entire apartment had been constructed out of the same ugly gray material.

My first impulse, after fleeing the scene, was to abandon the apartment right there and then. But the damn thing belongs to my wife's mother. So, there was no option but to deal with the situation.

Lacking any kind of professional advice, my wife and I went out and bought the highest quality dust masks we could find. Then, when the workers had gone home, thinking we were protected, we carefully cleared away all the asbestos. This, we discovered later, just made the situation worse.

That evening, I got on the web in order to find out as much as possible about the problem. The first place I landed was at the rather punchily titled "Mesothelioma" site. There I read about a 40-year-old American named Gabe Hoz. "The massive tumor in his stomach had left Gabe extremely weak," ran the narrative. "He was confined to a chair that tilted back and forth, which relieved the pressure of the swelling of his legs. He had one timer that went off every hour or so to remind him to inject himself with the immune augmentation serum. Another timer reminded him to take his morphine. To inject himself, Gabe would pick up the needle with his good left hand (the disease had left his right hand almost useless) and pump it into the left bicep." Another case involved an industrial worker named John Kroemer who was just 32 when he died of mesothelioma last year.

After reading all of this, I fell into a mental state bordering on hysteria. Russia is not a place conducive to healthy living, but the thought that we had even exposed ourselves to the vague possibility of such a filthy, inhuman disease was devastating. In the morning, when the workers showed up, I offered them masks -- which they refused -- and instructed them to rip out the whole labyrinthine maze of asbestos. This was the second and biggest of my mistakes.

The result: a tempest of asbestos-laden dust many times the size of the original. All the old women in the neighboring apartments formed a frenzied, shrieking welcoming committee every time we showed up (our masks did not help the situation). The zhilkontora, or building maintenance body, arrived to investigate. Not that any of them were worried about asbestos; they just thought we might be breaking the rules. Meanwhile, the asbestos sheeting we were storing at the back of the building to await dumping was being stolen every night and is probably now insulating dachas all around St. Petersburg.

How much damage all this did to the health of my wife, myself, our workmen and the neighbors is difficult to say. The chrysotile variety of asbestos produced in Russia is thought to be much less damaging than other types, namely the crocidolite mined in South Africa. Every doctor I spoke to dismissed our exposure as insignificant. And the English asbestos removal firm I eventually contacted conceded that there is probably equally high levels in most of the world's metro systems, where asbestos lines the tunnels.

Chrysotile asbestos is still a carcinogen, causing both lung cancer and mesothelioma. No threshold below which health problems occur has been established for chrysotile asbestos. But the extent to which it has been used as a building material in Russia far exceeds anything encountered in the world. Yury Schufchuk of the St. Petersburg environmental group Green Cross says half of the apartments in the city contain as much asbestos as ours or more. With Russia currently going remont crazy, it is often ripped out in an uncontrolled manner using hammers and crowbars. Precautions are rarely taken by workers or residents. City authorities still lag heating pipes with the stuff and old pipes often li