Posted on November 30, 2019

On November 18, Dr. Raja Flores, a professor and Chair of Thoracic Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) held the “Asbestos: Still Legal and Lethal Today” event.  During the luncheon, Dr. Flores and I focused on how medical students and nurses can add their voices and efforts to prevent asbestos-related diseases through education and advocacy.  

“I’m looking for fighters to help save lives,” Dr. Flores began. He went on to explain that nearly 40,000 people die every year — enough to fill Fenway Park — from asbestos-related illnesses including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to ban asbestos in 1989, but two years later, profits won over public health, and the ban was overturned. Since then, one million people have died from preventable asbestos-related diseases. 

Dr. Flores took the opportunity to tell the audience, which was made up of med students, nurses, residents, and members of a variety of workers unions about mesothelioma surgery.“It breaks my heart every time I have to do this monster operation on a patient,” Dr. Flores said. 

Following Dr. Flores’ presentation, I explained how my husband Alan had a slight persistent cough for a few years. It took him two years to be diagnosed with mesothelioma. He then fought a hard three year battle, undergoing massive surgery in hopes to extend his time with us, but sadly he died with our then 13 year old daughter Emily and me by his side. 

Part of the event was to urge the medical community to join the fight. Dr. Flores has a vision about building a new circle of warriors. Students, nurses and residents were also told to always ask patients about their work history, as well as where they currently live and have lived, because they could have been exposed to asbestos without even knowing it. 

“Since the pioneering work of Dr. Irving Sellikoff in the mid 1960s, Mt. Sinai Hospital has played a leading role in training doctors and the public about the health hazards of asbestos exposure.  The [event] was an important effort to provide information to tomorrow’s doctors about the need to recognize and treat asbestos-related diseases but more importantly to prevent future disease by eliminating the use of asbestos,” said Joel Shufro, a strong voice for occupational safety and health, who also spoke at the event. The program concluded with an invitation for action of the medical students in attendance to be involved in the fight to pass the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act (H.R.1603).

When asked why hosting events like this is important to him, Dr. Flores shared, “For the past several decades politics has trumped science, now it’s time for science to get political and it starts with this team of physician warriors who are on the front lines, screaming the truth about the dangers of failed asbestos policies.”

The audience also included Elizabeth Parise, who met Dr. Flores when her son was being treated for mesothelioma last year. Her son Felix died last December at age 29 from mesothelioma. 

“Nothing can bring him back but being able to direct the sadness and anger into action so that these preventable deaths from asbestos exposure stop brings some comfort,” Elizabeth said. “I knew that asbestos exposure causes Mesothelioma, but I was surprised to find out that lung cancer is the number one cancer caused by asbestos. Finding out that the number of people killed by asbestos related diseases each year could fill Fenway Park was shocking.”

Nearly 70 other countries have banned asbestos. It is time for the United States to follow suit. Educational seminars like this are integral to ADAO’s mission and we are deeply grateful to Dr. Flores, Mount Sinai, and everyone who came to the event. Together, we can make change happen.

Linda Reinstein
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