ASBESTOS: The Silent Killer?

By Maesah D.Nelson, II

In response to several surveys by TLC Africa concerning the seemingly high occurrences of cancerous deaths among Liberians living in the United States, an attempt is here made to explore the subject further.

In this article, the author will define asbestos, list the types of asbestos, discuss the various uses, reveal the kinds of cancers caused by asbestos, and finally give the symptoms of asbestos-related cancer.

Asbestos-a definition: according the US National Cancer Institute, ( asbestos is the name given to a group of materials that occur naturally as bundle of fibers which can be separated into thin threads. These fibers cannot conduct electricity neither are there affected by heat or chemicals, hence the reasons for their wide uses in many industries.

Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of asbestosis (a chronic lung ailment that can produce shortness of breath, coughing and permanent lung damage), lung cancer, mesothelioma ( a rare form of cancer in which malignant (cancerous) cells are found in the mesothelium, a protective sac that covers most of the body's internal organs). Most people who develop mesothelioma have worked on jobs where they inhaled asbestos particles) (, and other cancers.

The four types of asbestos that have been use commercially are:

· Chrysotile, or white asbestos
· Crocidolite, or blue asbestos
· Amosite, which usually have brown fiber; and
· Anthophyllite, which usually have gray fiber

The asbestos that concerns us here is Amosite, because it is used to make "cement-sheet", the kind we belief is used to make the sheets on many a roof top in Liberia. Why is this important? Picture this, if you may: it is a rainy day and many households have drums and/or buckets by the sides of the houses to collect rain water as it pours down from the roofs. Some families use the water to wash cloths, while others use it for other domestic chores. However, many households also use this rain water as drinking water. Rain water that has been contaminated by the asbestos sheets on the roof! In addition, kids also use the left-over asbestos sheets to built toy houses, kids who would be between 35 and 45 years old today.

According to NCI, nearly everyone is exposed to asbestos during their lifetime, but not everyone becomes ill from this exposure. Only those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact, develop illness from asbestos (see web link above).

This qualifies many Liberians as being prime candidates for asbestos-related cancer. After all, what could be a better substantial environmental contact then washing with, bathing in and or drinking asbestos-tinted water!?! And again, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), it takes a long time for symptoms from exposure to asbestos to appear, some 10-40 years.

Ten to 40 years falls in line for the people who grew up in Liberia during the '60's and '70's, the group that is contracting cancer at an alarming rate today. This is the same era when asbestos seems to have become popular as a roof covering of choice for new homes being built.

Could asbestos be a source (perhaps the major source) of cancer amount Liberians, both at home and abroad? Could it be the answer to questions concerning cancer that has baffled thoughtful Liberians on this subject for years? Could we have been starring at it all along? Playing with it, storing it, and drinking it? Could we have been living with this cancer-causing product all along and not realizing it? Could Asbestos be the silent, cancerous killer?

Asbestos as an industrial product has been band in the United States for many years, beginning in the 1970's. The NCI (National Cancer Institute) reports that in the late '70 the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching compounds and gas fire places because fibers could be released into the air during use. And in 1989 the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) banned all new uses of asbestos. However, uses established prior to '89 are still allowed.

  • Shortness of breath
  • A cough or change in cough pattern
  • Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Difficulty in swallowing or prolonged hoarseness; and/or
  • Significant weight loss.(

The pie charts below shows the latest report from the IARC (Int'l Agency for Research on Cancer) on cancer-related deaths in Liberia among males and females respectively (


It is wished that this brief discussion open up another avenue for additional discussions on the probable causes for the high cancer-related deaths amongst Liberians in recent times.

If one suspects that one is experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above, or know someone who is, it would be best to contact a doctor as soon as possible and inform the physician about the asbestos hazard one might have being exposed to in Liberia.

For additional information, please see below:
To report a dangerous product or a product-related injury, call CPSC's hotline at (800) 638-2772 or CPSC's teletypewriter at (800) 638-8270, or visit CPSC's web site at To join a CPSC email subscription list, please go to Consumers can obtain this release and recall information at CPSC's Web site at
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If you know of cases of Liberians and other West Africans who were diagnose with cancer after 2002, please provide information to TLC Africa cancer survey

Share your views on Asbestos and other types of Cancers with TLC Africa Readers in our "Speak Out Forum"