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Stolen breaths: Exhibit shows the horrifying reality of asbesos-related disease

By GINNY MERRIAM of the Missoulian

Most of the people in Bill Ravanesi's photo documentary "Breath Taken: The Landscape and Biography of Asbestos" are no longer living. People like Joe Darabant, right, a retired Johns-Manville Plant worker forced to retire when he was 50. Or shipyard workers Bud Howard, second from right, and Paris Jenkins, who both died from asbestos-related disease. Ravanesi's powerful images from over a decade of work are now hanging at the Missoula Art Museum. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Handsome, vital and young Joe Darabant began working in the Johns-Manville Plant in Manville, N.J., in 1941, cutting shingles and making building materials of asbestos. Asbestos dust filled the plant so the workers couldn't see from one end to the other.

When he was only 50, he had to retire early because asbestosis was keeping him from breathing. He was only 66 when he died, gasping for breath.

For 20 years, Ted Kowalski came home from work at the Manville plant covered with white dust. His kids, Teddy and Donna, used to say, "Here comes Daddy the snowman." Ted developed asbestosis. So did his wife, Betty, who never worked at the plant but greeted him after work. So did Teddy.

Clementine Szukis of Bridgewater, N.J., ran a beauty salon for 20 years. Lots of her customers worked at the Johns-Manville plant, women who wove asbestos cloth in the textile division. She brushed asbestos dust out of their hair when they came in after work. Asbestosis disabled her.

The Rev. Richard Pankowski, a Catholic priest, grew up seeing his father come home from work covered with asbestos dust. His father died of asbestosis. At 35, Richard was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a lung tumor that becomes so dense that it breaks scalpels. The following year, it crushed his lungs, and he died. Richard's mother developed asbestos disease that year.

Boston photographer Bill Ravanesi wants you to see their faces and hear about their lives. They are among the 10,000 Americans each year who die of asbestos-related disease.

Ravanesi spent 11 years watching their lives through his camera. He met more than 200 victims in asbestos factory towns. He's been to 75 or 80 funerals.

The result of his work, a traveling exhibit called "Breath Taken: The Landscape and Biography of Asbestos," is taking up more than one room at the Missoula Art Museum through June 26.

"These images literally sear into people's minds," Ravanesi said in a phone interview from his home office west of Boston this week.

Photojournalist Ravanesi might be called a photoactivist, and that's what he wants.

"We banned DDT and PCBs in the '70s, but we still have them in our bodies," he said. "In this exhibition, maybe people can make a connection to their own lives."

Ravanesi was finishing a documentary project about farm laborers when he came across Paul Brodeur's book "Expendable Americans," about people who die of asbestos-related disease because of their work and industry's callousness toward their plights.

"The start of it came from my outrage that this was a preventable disease," he said.

It's ludicrous, he said, considering humankind has known about the health effects of asbestos fibers since at least the first century, when Greek and Roman scholars noticed and wrote about lung diseases in slaves who worked weaving asbestos cloth.

Ravanesi takes on projects that are anything but small: farm workers, poverty in American, arson in America. He's been arrested protesting the Vietnam War and traveling with farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez.

"I've tried to meld both the art world and social activism together," he said. "I've tried to have the public see the human condition."

Ravanesi worked 11 years on "Breath Taken." He started in 1984 and traveled consistently through 1995, spending two to three months at a time in factory and mining towns where people were devastated by asbestos diseases.

It took those months, he said, to build trust in those towns and to find people who would allow him to follow them to their deaths.

One day, he was dragged out of the Manville-funded hospital in Somerset, N.J., by his ankles by security guards. They wanted him to stop taking pictures of Tom Bowlby, who was dying of asbestos-caused lung cancer that had gone to his brain. One night a week before he died, Tom got out of bed, confused, and tried to bury himself in the family garden in the back yard. Tom's wife, Georgine, became Ravanesi's champion.

'"Georgine, bless her heart, went to the president of the hospital and said, 'I demand that you allow this boy into our life, or I'll sue you.' "

Ravanesi ended his photos of the Bowlbys with a picture of Tom's body in the hospital morgue.

He ran out of money and spent one winter with no heat. These projects are expensive, he said. The project got bigger, and he added oral histories and photographs of historic objects reflecting the history of asbestos and humans.

One of the things that kept him going was his father, who died in 1981 of mesothelioma caused by his stint as a shipyard worker in Boston during World War II. When he was sick and dying, his family wasn't outraged yet.

"I was told he had mesothelioma," Ravanesi said. "And I was told it was an industrial exposure. But it didn't really sink in until later."

Today, "Breath Taken" is still traveling. Where it travels, it's accompanied by a symposium on asbestos, as it will be in Missoula.

Ravanesi continues as an asbestos activist. With 3,000 other victims, he sued 28 companies in 1982 in federal court in Boston over the wrongful deaths of their loved ones. He waited 13 years.

"My number never came up," he said.

The news media, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe, have not covered the story of industry hiding the dangers of asbestos exposure from their workers because of pro-business sentiment and business ownership of media, Ravanesi said. Industry has slipped the collar of responsibility by going bankrupt.

"The way the surviving families get treated is not good," he said.

Industry continues to mine and market asbestos to Third World countries. Asbestos illness will kill at least 100,000 Americans in the next decade as new exposures, such as Libby, are discovered. Thirty million tons of asbestos are in products still in use throughout the United States. Ravanesi favors a total ban of the mineral.

"It's power and greed and money," he said. "I think that's the equation right there, in this country more than any."

"We're suffering the needs and conveniences of a post-modern industrial society," he said. "We don't have the means to deal with it. We're in denial. ... The American public is at times just totally asleep about what's really going on. A lot of it is jobs and dollars."