Virginia Time Capsule Epitomizes Asbestos Concerns

In Roanoke, Virginia, a time capsule buried beneath the floor at the Roanoke City Health Department office has officials stymied.

The time capsule was originally scheduled to be exposed Thursday, January 7. That was until Virginia Department of Health officials discovered that the capsule was concealed beneath post-1950s flooring that likely contains asbestos.

The asbestos in the flooring isn’t that surprising, however, since many construction products made during the last century contained asbestos. This includes not only floor tiles and sheet flooring, but acoustical ceiling tiles and sprays, boiler pipe and wall insulation, glues and mastics and joint compounds, and even some decorative plaster compounds.

The use of asbestos in domestic products began to decline in the late 1970s, as manufacturers became increasingly aware of its dangers, and virtually ended in 1989, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, limited asbestos use to one percent or less (by weight or volume) to American-made products.

This intervention was fortuitous, since asbestos in its natural form is a mineral comprised of minute fibers which, once inhaled or ingested, remain inside the body for life, causing irritation and, eventually, lethal tumors called mesotheliomas in a small but significant number of exposures.

Mesothelioma is, simply put, cancer. But its high rate of deaths is attributed to the fact that it lies dormant for decades – commonly 40 years but sometimes up to 50 years or more – producing few symptoms but invading a large area of vital tissue and organs.

By the time mesothelioma is diagnosed, most patients are given about a year to live. These prognoses are mitigated, but only slightly, by aggressive regimens of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, which can add about four months to patients’ survival times.

In fact, the only real hope for mesothelioma sufferers to date is a new diagnostic technique which samples pleural fluid to determine the presence of peritoneal mesothelioma. This method, which can establish mesothelioma within the first few years (possibly even at inception), is being viewed by medical professionals as the first true opportunity to curb mesothelioma before it ravages internal organs.

In Virginia, officials – who know what health professionals did not know in the 1950s (namely, the inherent lethality of asbestos) – have postponed unearthing the time capsule indefinitely; or at least until the content of the suspect floor tiles is determined by testing.

This delay is, in itself, a form of irony, revealing how the nation, and the world, got itself locked into an asbestos legacy that won’t end until sometime after 2030 – that is, 40 years after the use of asbestos in domestic products was suspended.

Of course, asbestos continues to be used elsewhere in the world, in countries like India, China and Russia, where no ban exists, and the occasional importation of products from these countries extends the asbestos legacy, at least among those who buy products made overseas without reading the labels, or fail to ask contractors and repairmen about the contents of products they use.