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Spreading the Word: The Tragedy of Asbestos Poisoning [The Synergist / AIHA]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Synergist / American Industrial Hygiene Association
December 1996

After Bill Ravanesi’s father died of mesothelioma in 1981, he embarked on a 12-year mission to photograph and exhibit the faces behind the tragedy of asbestos poisoning that has afflicted hundreds of thousands of people. He has gained notoriety, but his mission is not accomplished. Ravanesi wants to educate the public and convince lawmakers to make changes that will stop companies from using toxins in the workplace.

Here’s his story.

Bill Ravanesi’s father worked as a shipyard worker in Boston during World War II. In November 1980, he was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos at the shipyard. In less than three months, Ravanesi Sr. went from a 6-foot-tall, 220-pound man to 160-pound patient living on an intravenous morphine drip. Cement-like tumors studded the lining of his chest cavity making it difficult, if not impossible, to breath.

On Jan. 9, 1981, Ravanesi’s father died.

Bill Ravanesi felt weighted down. For three years, he carried his sorrow with him. Then he came upon a book by Paul Brodeur, a senior staff writer at the New Yorker magazine called, Expandable Americans.

Ravanesi was relieved and inspired. Although he could no longer help his father, he could use his skill as a photographer to expose the evils of asbestos.

In 1984 he began contacting other victims of asbestos poisoning, took their photos, and collected hundreds of oral histories. By 1990, he had enough work for the exhibition he entitled: “Breath Taken: The Landscape and Biography of Asbestos.” It includes 91 color photographs by Ravanesi, 36 historical pictures, and a series of vintage photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White for Fortune magazine in 1934.

“The victims of asbestos-related disease have been strangely missing from our sight,” says Ravanesi. “They get lost amid the controversies over liabilities for past exposures and prevention of future instances. To the degree that we see them at all, it is usually as objects rather than as subjects—statistics to be recorded, cases to be diagnosed or plaintiffs to be deposed. Our knowledge of asbestos as a major medical, legal and social problem has ironically tended to obscure the fact of asbestos as a profound human tragedy.”

For the last 12 years, Ravanesi has continued to add to and improve the exhibit. He has traveled to the companies that make the product in North America including those in Asbestos, Quebec, Canada; Eden, Vt.; Manville, N.J.; Waukegan, Ill.; and Charleston, S.C.

“The victims of asbestos-caused disease are not only subjects of the photographs, but witnesses testifying to the impact of asbestos on human life,” says Ravanesi, who has a master’s degree in photography and after starting the project got a second master’s in public health. “The photos comment not only on their subjects’ physical condition but also on the social circumstances that gave rise to and surround their health problems.”


Breath Taken opened at the Boston University Art Gallery in March of 1990 in conjunction with a symposium featuring talks by asbestos victims and a catalog of experts. The exhibit traveled to the Houston Center for Photography later that year, to the Museo Italo Americano at the Fort Mason Art Center in San Francisco in 1992, and to three venues in Alaska in 1994: the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the State Museum in Juneau and the Museum of History and Art in Anchorage. In 1995, Breath Taken was on exhibit at the State University of New Mexico in Las Cruces.

Throughout the last six years, the exhibit has won critical acclaim from the media. The
Boston Globe called it a “chilling, striking exhibition.” The Houston Post said it was “educational, moving and shocking.”

Industry experts and scholars agree. “It’s a great exhibit,” says Scott Schneider, ergonomics program director of the Center to Protect Workers Rights in Washington, D.C. “It gives a lot of information. You can see what exactly happened during the last century.”

Schneider, who studies construction safety and health problems, says he hopes Ravanesi’s exhibit will be used to train the public as well as workers who are working to remove asbestos from buildings.

“Workers need to gain an appreciation of the problem of asbestos and the risks to which they might be exposing themselves,” says Schneider.

Academician David Kotelchuck says he thinks Ravanesi’s project has already helped the public-and a few experts gain a new appreciation about the realities of asbestos. Kotelchuck first met Ravanesi through his exhibit in 1987. He was so intrigued that he volunteered to be a member of the Center for Visual arts in the Public Interest.

“This project helped us to recognize there are people behind the health statistics we develop,” says Kotelchuck, associate professor at Hunter College who directs the graduate programs in environment and occupational and health sciences. “It has helped many of us to try to begin to get a feeling for the human cost of the diseases that have been caused by asbestos exposure. You look into the faces in the photographs, the eyes, and you get a sense of who they are and what they are and what they are living through. That is Bill’s gift—his ability to capture the essence of this disease.”

It is also Ravanesi’s gift to spearhead a cause. Soon after the exhibit was up and running in 1990, Ravanesi decided to continue his activist role and create the Center for Visual Arts in the Public Interest Inc., a nonprofit organization to promote awareness of public health-including environmental and occupational health-issues through the visual arts and other media.

Center volunteers produce visual arts exhibitions using photography, video, film and mixed-media elements; publish illustrated brochures, a five-color monograph; and sponsor conferences that bring together experts in the arts, public health and the sciences.

“The mission of the center reflects an emerging trend in the contemporary art world to challenge the purely aesthetic experience as an end in itself, and to merge the visual arts with issues of social concern,” says Ravanesi, who is currently finishing his Ph.D. in environmental health at Boston University. “It is unique in its efforts to effect a merger between the visual arts and public health concerns.”

Currently, the center is working to alert the public about other occupational health hazards such as electro-magnetic radiation. After extensive research into papers published since 1978 by the National Library of Medicine regarding electro-magnetic fields, Ravanesi and his staff have put together a bibliography called EMF Studies and Malignancy.

“There is a preponderance of information that says there is a problem with EMF,” says Ravanesi. “In fact, there are 13 childhood studies that report that children who live near power lines have two times the risk of getting childhood cancers, a including leukemia.”

The focus of the center remains on informing the public about asbestos. In that effort, Ravanesi and his team came up with a new vehicle—the CD-ROM. The center’s first CD, funded by NIOSH, features articles on asbestos, the exhibit photographs as well as interviews with victims.

It is those interviews that made an impact on editors and judges at New Media Magazine, a national technology magazine based in San Francisco that honors the year’s best new media applications at its annual Invision Awards. The “Breath Taken” CD took a silver medal at last summer’s awards.

“The quotes from the victims made this scientific project very emotional and real,” says Gilliam Newson, senior features editor at New Media Magazine. “So many times you hear about the damage that asbestos can cause, but often you only hear the statistics and think, ‘isn’t that terrible.’ But, when you actually hear the voices of the people who were victimized, you understand how deadly asbestos is.

You say to yourself, ‘Wow, this stuff completely changed a lot of people’s lives.’ The CD is very powerful.”

Ravanesi hopes to go into production with that CD, expanding it to hold more than 1,000 articles about asbestos. He also plans to include a training component to teach asbestos workers how to safely remove the poisonous material.

“I think the CD can be widely distributed and used to show what has already happened,” says Ravanesi, who hopes to sell the CD. “There are hazards coming down the pike that we aren’t up to speed on yet. Getting data onto a CD will help disseminate information so that another cover up and conspiracy doesn’t happen the way it did with asbestos.”


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.