Asbestos – a ticking time bomb

I could never have imagined that my idyllic and carefree childhood would leave me with a nagging worry about my health. I just have to wait and see.

Asbestos – a ticking time bomb

I grew up on a farm. Looking back, it was an idyllic childhood, particularly on weekends and in the summer. Each day was loaded with activity, learning and adventure. Very often the day would start with an early breakfast, and then I and one or more of my siblings would head out with a lunch packed for the day. We would make our rounds of the usual places. We explored in the woods, went fishing and then spent time at the lake close to our home. We felt that we had the run of a very large area on foot and on our bikes and that we could have a day limited only by our imagination. We felt safe and happy.

Hard farm work

But living on a farm also came with responsibilities and that meant work. Some of the work felt a lot like fun because it involved riding horses for their exercise. Even driving the work horses and the truck was fun. Some of the work was very hard – back-breaking, in fact – and that involved the careful tending of a very large vegetable garden. Some periods of work were very intense, such as the 2-week period where we had to get the hay in for the winter. All told, I loved living on the farm for all of the fun I could have, and I didn’t mind the hard work that I had to do at times.

My father had a lot of projects at different times, and I was both an able and a willing helper. One project that was extensive and had to be done over a number of weeks was the recladding of our large farmhouse. My parents selected a leading-edge siding product, something that was billed as being durable, lightweight and easy to maintain. They chose a lovely color, something that fit in well with the rural area.

True to the promotional materials, it was indeed easy to install. I could install large areas with a small amount of upfront instruction. For many other areas – around windows, doors and dormers, as an example – my father needed to do a lot of measuring and cutting. I would often be by his side as he cut, and then I would carry the pieces and install them myself or carry them up the ladder for my father to install them. I enjoyed working alongside my father on this project and thought that we worked well as a team.

Looking back with regret

Years later, I view the project differently. I regret that we both did the work that we did. I wish that we hadn’t spent the hours and days that we did installing the new siding on our home. It’s not for the time and the interaction with my father – that was great, and I will always value it. There is a much deeper reason for wishing that I had never spent the time as I did – the siding that we used was made of asbestos.

The miracle mineral

The miracle mineral, as it was called in the heyday of its use, is no miracle at all. It is a killer with a long and certain reach. It has reached into homes, both on their inside and outside. (Not only did we have asbestos siding, we also had asbestos tiles in our kitchen.) It has reached into our hospitals, schools and offices where insulation, pipes and other building products contained asbestos. Its use in a variety of products that wouldn’t occur to most people surprised me when I started to do my own investigation through the years. I found its use in clothing to be particularly troubling.

Caught in its grip, few survive. A diagnosis of mesothelioma appears to be a death sentence, and from the accounts that I have read, the dying is slow and painful. Affected individuals struggle for breath and live with the knowledge that things will only get worse as the disease progresses. Loved ones watch helplessly as those afflicted progress through the various stages of decline.

The ones who are afflicted are varied and numerous. They are townspeople from the areas where the asbestos was mined. They are construction workers who both built and remediated buildings. They are people who worked with the material, invariably inhaling the particles from the solid pieces that contained asbestos. They are the office and hospital workers who stayed at work while portions of their buildings were remediated. They are the children who sat in their fathers’ arms and inhaled the particles from their work clothes, and they are the wives who washed those clothes.

Waiting and wondering

Since the issues with asbestos were first revealed, I have wondered about my various environments, at home and at work. What materials have been used in the construction that may contain asbestos? Are those environments safe? And then my mind turns to my childhood when I handled sheets of siding made from asbestos and likely breathed in some of the particles.

I have no symptoms or issues, and so I wait and wonder. My childhood was carefree and wonderful, but is a health issue biding its time to rear its ugly head? I wouldn’t rule it out.


I and other kids from our area had exposure to asbestos beyond our home areas. We picked up and played with chunks of the stuff when we walked the railway tracks in the area. It was an intriguing substance because we could pull it apart with our fingers. A solid chunk the size of a piece of coal would pull apart into lots of delicate sheets, and that could entertain us for some time as we walked along and talked.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.