That’s because Janelle Bedel’s death last month was caused by something that could also kill you: asbestos.
Janelle was only 31 when she got the diagnosis of mesothelioma. She was a wife and a mother to a four-year-old son when, seemingly out of nowhere, she experienced trouble breathing, a chronic cough and pain around her upper left side. In just weeks, this mom went from the picture of health to a fight for her life. From the beginning, Janelle was told that she would not survive mesothelioma and only after an extraordinarily difficult and painful surgery called an extra-pleural pneumonectomy (essentially a lung removal), did she make it, for six more years.
Mesothelioma is a grave diagnosis given to approximately 3000 Americans each year and it is inextricably linked to asbestos exposure. However, unlike virtually every other dangerous substance, asbestos isn’t on most people’s “stay-away-from” list. So it is entirely possible that you, like Janelle, could avoid cigarettes and alcohol, eat a healthy diet, exercise and still succumb to asbestos-related mesothelioma.
Asbestos has been mined and used in manufacturing for decades. Since it is a strong and heat-resistant substance, asbestos was readily used in construction projects (think Twin Towers). Although industry documents tying asbestos exposure to cancer date back to the early 1900’s, American industry had a field day with asbestos up until the mid-1970’s when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a series of bans on asbestos use, starting with a ban on spray-applied surfacing materials for fireproofing/insulating purposes.
Over the years bans on asbestos mining (stopped in 2002) and the use of asbestos have been strengthened but the substance has never been downright banned in the United States. (It has been banned in over 50 other countries.)
In fact, according to the United States Geological Survey, asbestos consumption in the United States was estimated to be 820 tons, based on asbestos imports through July 2010.
Matters are made worse by the nature of asbestos. Although it is strong and durable when left intact, it is anything but when disturbed. Construction workers who used to routinely slice through asbestos pipe, for example, were exposed to millions of microscopic asbestos fibers. These fibers, odorless and virtually invisible, traveled easily into the lungs and stomachs of many a pipe-fitter and insulator (among other trades). Only decades later did the perfect storm of friction and the body’s natural reaction to create layers of protection against a foreign substance, result in many of these men’s diagnosis of mesothelioma.
But before you breathe that sigh of relief, thinking to yourself that you are glad you never worked in construction, consider Janelle.
She was not a pipefitter. Or insulator. Nothing of the kind.
Janelle, like me and most of you, lived a routine American life in a routine American city. There was nothing about her life that suggested asbestos exposure but she was clearly exposed. Mesothelioma is called the “signature” cancer of asbestos because scientists widely agree that the only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure.
Since her diagnosis Janelle was a beacon of hope for others with mesothelioma: beating the lousy survival statistics by years and rallying others to take action to ban asbestos. She worked closely with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). And she kept on fighting.
Despite her death, Janelle is still inspiring others. The townspeople of Rushville, Indiana rallied behind Janelle (aka Wonder Woman) and on May 19th, 2013, hundreds of people gathered to make donations. The town’s Mayor officially recognized June 6 as Janelle Bedel “Wonder Woman” Day as well as recognizing September 26 as National Mesothelioma Awareness Day. Her story has been told on various media channels across the country.
In her life Janelle called for a complete asbestos ban in the U.S.
I, for one, hope you’re listening.