By Andrew RobbinsCSMS Magazine Staff WriterLes Skramstad—husband, father, and grandfather—lost his life to cancer in January at Libby, Montana. Les was a gentleman. Unassuming and down to earth, he lived life trusting a man’s word was as good as his handshake. He loved his family and his guitar, and he believed in doing what’s right. With his passing, America lost a true champion in the cause of asbestos awareness and I lost a friend. I first met Les and his wife, Norita, in Libby at the Cabinet Books and Music store. I was there to speak about my experience with asbestos exposure. When I finished my talk Les asked, “Why did you write It Took My Breath Away?” I explained, when I learned my employer had exposed me to asbestos, I had narrowed my choices down to ‘going postal’ or documenting the event. Due to maturity or wisdom, I had chosen the latter. We bonded that evening as only victims who share a common tragedy do. Les revealed he had asbestosis, a preventable illness directly attributable to the inhalation of earthen minerals. He had worked less than two years at the Libby mine, but that was all it took to seal his fate. His disease was a cross he was prepared to bear. But the unbearable knowledge that the mine minerals would also consume the health of his wife, his children, and perhaps even his grandchildren was more than any loving husband, father, or grandfather should endure. Norita, two of their children, and countless other Libby residents had already been diagnosed with asbestosis, and others with mesothelioma. Many of these victims never worked for the Grace Corporation; they merely inhaled the contaminated air that drifted over their community. Though the words were never uttered, I am certain this soft-spoken man lay awake at night making a list of culpable persons. However, instead of seeking western justice, he became an activist. Working with their long-time friend, Gayla Benefield, Les and Norita Skramstad carried the torch and enlightened the world by exposing how governments and American corporations conspired and decimated their community. In 1963, W.R. Grace Corporation purchased the Libby Zonolite Mine and assumed its financial liabilities. Court documents reveal, before the purchase, state regulators and Grace executives were aware the products sold by Zonolite Corporation were contaminated with tremolite asbestos and dangerous replica minerals (richterite and winchite). Yet, for another twenty-nine years, Grace refined and sold vermiculite insulation and soil additives knowing they contained asbestos. These products were shipped throughout America and can still be found in most communities today. Estimates range as high as 35 million buildings in our country contain these dangerous materials. In 1996 Les was diagnosed with asbestosis, an often-fatal lung disease resulting from inhaling mineral dust. The impact of asbestosis on a patient’s health may first be diagnosed as lung scarring, plaques, and/or effusion (fluid around the lungs). The body’s inability to exchange gases leads to shortness of breath on exertion and a diminished quality of life. By December 2006, the effects of Les’ exposure to minerals advanced and a greater health threat was diagnosed. Les had developed peritoneal mesothelioma—cancer of the lining of his abdomen. Three weeks later he died. More than 30 million Americans live every day with chronic lung disease. Most Americans have no idea how frequently they are exposed to earthen minerals. Complacent communities can be destroyed when federal, state, and local governments emphasize economic growth while ignoring citizens’ health. Of the 134 employees who worked with Les at the mine, only four survive. Two-thirds of Libby residents diagnosed with mesothelioma never worked a day at the mine. Les Skramstad wanted the world to realize, “This didn’t ‘happen’ to us, this was ‘done’ to us!”Note: Andrew Robbins is the author of It Took My Breath Away: One Man’s Experience May Save Your Life.Also see Valuing Buildings Over Employee Health
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