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The way to dusty death.

My dad--a man who never went to college, who worked in the building trades, and wore workboots and overalls--was a thinking man. He read books. He loved opera. He learned to paint in oils. He used to ponder what was the best form of government: "Don't you think it's the philosopher king?" He loved poetry, most of all Shakespeare, and knew many soliloquies by heart. Being of the brooding Irish persuasion, he favored and best understood the tragedies: King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth. All guys with family troubles.

Dad's particular trade was pipecovering. Until the 1970s, pipecoverers insulated heating and hot water pipes with asbestos, the stuff that guys in moonsuits will now scrape off your basement pipes for a fat fee. Of course they didn't use moonsuits back in Dad's day. So the pipecoverers' lungs filled up with asbestos fibers instead.

Asbestos in the human lung causes a variety of horrors: lung scarring and disease, for one, which finally did in my dad at 79, a true Methuselah among asbestos workers (who almost never make it that long). Or it can so compromise your lung capacity that when you come down with pneumonia it kills you, as it did my uncle Ray Carmody at age 52. Or maybe it sits in your lungs for a few decades and then spawns a practically incurable cancer called mesothelioma. Actor Steve McQueen, exposed to asbestos in the Marines and also in car racing, died this way. So did most of my father's friends: Jack Friday, Bud O'Brien, and many, many others, all before their times. And so did my brother Dave, at age 35.

You see, my dad got my brother a summer job pipecovering when he was in high school. I can't imagine what it must have been like to drive your son to chemo and watch him die, leaving a wife and 3-year-old son, all because 20 years back you wanted to teach him your trade and help him earn a few bucks over the summer. Dad's Shakespearean heroes stood by him, though. "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death," grieves Macbeth.

Company documents have since indicated that asbestos manufacturers knew the horrible risks as early as the 1930s but hid them for decades. So I tend to be skeptical when people wax eloquent about the free market and how we can't hamstring big corporations with too many of those terribly stringent worker safety standards.

Kristin Shrader-Frechette, the Notre Dame professor interviewed by our editors (pages 18-23), would say this is not only a Catholic prolife issue, but an issue of social justice. "Environmental justice," she calls it, pointing out that our poor and working class endure the worst of our pollution and other dangers. But don't whine, she says: Instead, hold your public officials accountable. To that, Shakespeare adds, "Action is eloquence." Indeed.
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Author:O'Connell-Cahill, Catherine
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:478
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