It was great summer activity, and served a worthy purpose, but to the teens hired by Grosse Pointe billionaire Manuel "Matty" Maroun to clean up the abandoned Michigan Central Train Station (MCTS) this past summer, it also means exposure to toxic, and possibly, lethal asbestos fibers found in the debris and released into the air via sweeping.
After the old Michigan Central Depot burned, on December 26, 1913, a still incomplete but architecturally stunning 17-story building off Michigan Avenue was put into service instead. It thrived before and during WWII, but the gradual rise of automobiles, and their increasing affordability, dampened passenger train service until, by 1956, the MCTS was put up for sale.
No buyers came forward, and it was again offered for sale in 1963, but again no one appeared interested. In 1967, the main entrance and park were closed. In 1971, Amtrak took over America's passenger train service, and more than a million dollars was invested into renovating the MCTS. But the passenger train boom never materialized and, in 1984, the building was sold for a transportation center that never occurred. On January 5, 1988, the last train left the MCTS.
Eventually, Maroun bought the building, which remained open throughout much of the 1990s, though much of the interior plaster and brass artwork was gutted by thieves. In 2004, city officials agreed to purchase it for a new Detroit Police headquarters. The deal fell through, and the city of Detroit has since been plagued with such overwhelming financial catastrophe (more recently, the bankruptcy of the auto industry) that the police are likely to continue in their old headquarters for the foreseeable future.
The MCTS cleanup began on June 30 with a handful of teens and employees from Maroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Company (which owns the Ambassador Bridge under a company of the same name). At the behest of organizer John Mohyi, the first phase of cleanup was intended to be a new beginning for the aging landmark under a grassroots campaign called Save Michigan Central, with owner Maroun providing all the equipment the group requested. Maroun even gave a BBQ for youth volunteers.
The project has since turned into a PR and health disaster. The teens, all from the volunteer Detroit organization Summer In The City, founded in 2002 and aimed at recruiting high school and college youth to build character, relationships and a sense of belonging, face the potential of asbestos contamination that may impact the rest of their young lives.
Asbestos, a fibrous mineral widely used in construction (as an insulator, in plaster, and in floor and ceiling tiles) well into the middle of the last century, is a toxic substance that, when disturbed or broken and inhaled or ingested, can lead to a number of illnesses, including mesothelioma, or cancer of the mesothelial lining of the chest and abdomen.
Mesothelioma occurs in several distinct types (pleural, in the lungs; peritoneal, in the abdomen; and pericardial, the heart). The most common is pleural, which normally lies dormant for up to 50 years, producing few definitive symptoms under the tumor is well advanced. By that time, the prognosis is very poor, with most patients given between a year and 18 months to live. Some ten percent may survive up to five years, but only where the cancer is caught early and treated aggressively by radical single or combination therapies.
Thomas Vincent, of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), noted that the DEQ was not able to take samples until the volunteers finished working, but that at least one sample, on duct work found in a dumpster, was positive for friable asbestos, the kind that can become airborne and present the greatest danger. Said material was clearly moved from inside to outside, according to Vincent.
The volunteers were not given respirators by Maroun, nor provided with protective clothing of any kind, and Dr. Michael Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Asbestos Cancer and a member of the Karmanos Cancer Institute, has called the lapse "absolutely dumb", adding that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. This position is supported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSHA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the American Cancer Society, who have previously noted that a day or a lifetime can trigger mesothelioma.
Detroit International Bridge Company President Dan Stamper has since argued that the company wasn't aware of the presence of asbestos, and did suspend all volunteer work once asbestos was discovered. However, the DEQ may impose fines and penalties once a full review is completed.
Dr. Harbut is recommending a profile of tests - including complete lung function testing, a physical, and a low-dose chest x-ray - to all volunteers, a protocol that should be followed up every five years for at least 15 years, with appropriate cancer surveillance for the rest of the volunteer's life. The tests are covered under most insurance plans. For those volunteers lacking medical insurance, Karmanos is offering entry into their CDC- and EPA-funded studies (and database) which offer blood tests for detecting lung cancer and mesothelioma early.