CITY HALL – Protected by only a paper painter’s mask, Teresa Page enthusiastically went to work tearing down walls and floors at a St. Louis work site, not knowing that the dust she breathed was full of asbestos.
Fifteen years later, suffering from terminal cancer brought on by that asbestos, she appealed to the Board of Aldermen to pass a law guaranteeing that other workers wouldn’t suffer her fate.
Deeply moved, aldermen voted Friday to approve a bill requiring that asbestos abatement workers get the training and protection they need to keep them safe.
“I know that soon I’ll just become a statistic,” Page, of Belleville, told board members. “I won’t be able to stand here in person and ask you, beg you, to protect the people who elected you and act on their behalf to keep them safe in the workplace.”
Board members, some with tears in their eyes, first passed a resolution mourning the loss of workers harmed by asbestos and celebrating Page’s efforts to protect them. Then they passed the bill.
“Miss Page has used her illness as motivation to advocate for and educate workers and to ensure that others don’t find themselves in a similar situation,” 24th Ward Alderman Bret Narayan said, reading part of the resolution. He is the chief sponsor of the resolution and the bill.
Page has been told she has six months to two years to live in her battle with mesothelioma. She has had four surgeries and lost her uterus, her cervix, her Fallopian tubes, her hair and her appendix.
“I was never given any proper training, no abatement suits,” Page said. “I was told to break up VAT tile, but was not told what it stood for. VAT tile stands for vinyl asbestos tile. Fully unaware, I did my job, and I worked my hands.”
The new bill is an amendment to current ordinances spelling out the authority of the health commissioner, fee schedules, asbestos, demolition, air pollution and penalties.
The bill would require the health commissioner or his or her representative to approve permits on demolition, construction, reconstruction, alteration or occupancy of any building, structure or business. It specifies that no permit shall be issued unless the prerequisites for asbestos abatement procedures are met.
To ensure that asbestos abatement contractors stay objective, they must be separate from a company doing a project.
The ordinance calls for stiff fines for violations. Anyone causing damage to the health of a worker on a project or of a building’s owner or occupants is subject to a $500 fine. That fine multiples for each violation or person injured. There also are fines for work stoppages.
“This is an aggressive way of getting this done,” Narayan said. But it’s worth it, considering all the people who may come in contact with asbestos through no fault of their own, Narayan said.
“It only takes a single contact with asbestos to potentially develop mesothelioma, and ultimately what we’re trying to do is to make sure that we can limit contacts that both workers and city residents have.”
After Page’s speech to the board, several aldermen spoke up to praise her work.
“What I do appreciate is your courage to come out,” 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro said.
Nineteenth Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis told Page, “You are an eloquent speaker. You speak from your heart.”
And Eighth Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice said, “You are leaving behind a bright path. You did save lives.”