Housing at Ft. Bliss for military families has been under the gun since April of 2008, with ongoing reports of mold, lead paint and other contaminants making the children of enlisted men ill, according to Fox News affiliate KFOX14, a Cox Television station broadcasting out of El Paso, Texas.
The most recent concern, however, involves asbestos debris, which has been turning up all around the Van Horne Housing Development inside the U.S. Army post located primarily in New Mexico, with main facilities spilling over next to the city limits of El Paso.
The site is not small, either in terms of acreage or people. As of 2007, 2,724 people occupied the area, 94.6 percent of them as families in households.
During a community meeting on Thursday evening, May 13, Garrison Commander Col. Leonard Wells said that letters had been sent to all homes in the Van Horne community, informing them of the problem. The asbestos debris, according to Wells, is the residue from some older homes that were torn down during the past decade.
The asbestos, Wells said, was part of a siding called asbestos-cement siding, or ACS, which was widely used up until about the middle of the 1970s for its thermal (insulative) properties. Asbestos was also used in other building products up until that date, and can be found in older floor tiles, sheet flooring, flooring glues, acoustical ceiling sprays, decorative wall sprays, some plaster finishes and plaster/sheetrock repair compounds, and in the sealant around windows and doors, among others.
In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limited the use of asbestos in domestic product manufacture to one percent or less by weight or volume. The well-financed asbestos lobby has since managed to undermine that ruling, and in 2007-2008, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, imports of asbestos rose by almost nine percent, to 1,880 tons.
According to Wells, asbestos presence in ACS means it is “low-hazard”; that is, not airborne. In addition, Ft. Bliss officials plan to contain the source of the debris and, eventually, to completely remove it, even though they are in the process of moving families out of the Van Horne units and tearing down the balance of the housing that remains. Currently, according to Wells, only 120 people live in the Van Horne section.
Other allegations, that fort commanders intimidated soldiers and their families into keeping silent about Van Horne’s problems, have been met with silence, according to KFOX14 reporters.
Asbestos, which was widely used in any number of building materials up until about the mid-1970s, is the cause (though generally only after long exposure) of a respiratory disorder known as asbestosis. It is also the only known cause of mesothelioma, a cancer of mesothelial tissues surrounding and protecting the lungs, heart and abdominal organs.
Mesothelioma tends to lie dormant for up to five decades before producing symptoms serious enough to send sufferers to a doctor. By then, the cancer has invaded so much vital tissue, and so many vital organs, that the usual prognosis is about a year to live. Therapies like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy do not appreciably alter this prognosis, but do provide improved breathing, less pain, and a higher quality of life.
In the United States alone, 10,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases every year, 2,500 of those from mesothelioma. For the residents of the Van Horne Housing Development, the picture is bleak. According to OSHA, the CDC, and the American Cancer Society, there is no minimum, safe level of asbestos exposure; it requires only a single instance to cause mesothelioma.
Sources: KFOX-TV, Enviroblog, Environmental Working Group