The United States Troops in Afghanistan were well schooled to the dangers they would face once they arrived, from snipers and roadside attacks, to car bombs and insurgents in disguise.
Little was said, though, about the threat of asbestos, and the long-term health risks that it presented. Those were real, too.An estimated 1,000 U.S. military veterans each year are diagnosed with mesothelioma, the deadly cancer caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers, and that number isn't expected to decline anytime soon.
While the use of asbestos has dropped dramatically within the United States and is used very sparingly now by the military, the toxic asbestos industry is thriving in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and surrounding countries.
When older buildings are damaged or disturbed by various munitions in Afghanistan, asbestos construction materials also are damaged and disturbed, sending the asbestos fibers into the fierce desert winds, spreading them for miles.
The inhalation can cause a variety of respiratory problems, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. With the long latency period of mesothelioma – it can take up to 50 years after exposure for the cancer to develop making the prognosis very difficult – the health issues don't become obvious until soldiers have left the military.
Although 55 countries around the world have banned asbestos, Afghanistan has upped its importation of the toxic chemical as part of the efforts to rebuild the war-torn country. The positive qualities of this naturally occurring mineral – inexpensive, versatile, heat-resistant – make it too hard to resist for companies that have little regard for safe-handling practices and long-term health risks.
In Afghanistan, asbestos is being used today in pipe insulation, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roofing shingles, drywall joint compounds, cement boards and spray-on fireproofing, many places where the U.S. construction industry once used it commonly.
Only a year ago, Ban Asbestos of India, and the South Asian Ban Asbestos Network, sent a joint letter of proclamation to the Presidential Palace in Kabul, urging the government of Afghanistan to contain its widespread use. Kazakhstan, which is to the north of Afghanistan, is one of the world's biggest exporters of asbestos, shipping considerable amount into Afghanistan.
According to a recent report by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, "an increase in demand for asbestos-containing building products to rebuild Afghanistan has led to increased local production." There is little medical or public awareness of the hazards.
In 2009, liability lawsuits were filed in nine different states against KBR, an American construction company operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, for endangering the health and safety of both contractors and U.S. soldiers serving there.
Many of the lawsuits revolved around the burning of waste in KBR's large, open-air burn pits, without safety controls, that sent asbestos and other toxic chemicals into the air. The toxic smoke put servicemen at risk.
Even after soldiers return from Afghanistan, the threat of health issues from asbestos remains from their tour of duty.