Last April, I signed a form acknowledging that my apartment “might” have asbestos.
“Might.” I reread that word three or four times before turning to my roommate, Shasun, who met my gaze, gave a little “Eh…” and quickly signed the dotted line before moving onto the rest of the signatory pages. I looked down, scribbled my ever-changing blob of a signature and followed suit.
We were sitting in the Raj Properties office, stumbling through what felt like hundreds of pages of signatures to solidify our lease to an apartment that took months to find. With finals already creeping up behind us, my roommates and I had spent February, March and most of April on what is all too familiar for most UC Berkeley students — an exhaustive search for housing, repeatedly applying and getting rejected from landlords all across Berkeley.
Because of its less-than-stellar reputation, Raj Properties was my designated “only if everything else falls through” option; yet here I was — signing away my parents’ retirement fund for an apartment that “might” be infested with asbestos. I didn’t really have any other option.
I was not the only one, either. Almost all of my friends were entering into leases that also acknowledged the presence of asbestos or some other harmful material. After months of searching for housing within our budgets, we could not simply reject the only housing offer on the table. So we signed away, because in Berkeley, affordable housing seemingly meant toxic housing.
Asbestos’ reputation as a toxic substance is not a quiet one. Thousands of lawsuits have been catapulted at firms that once used asbestos in their products, bankrupting more than 100 companies in the process. While many of these lawsuits were eventually written off to be “phony”, the science between asbestos and its toxicity has been clear for almost a century, with the first asbestos-related death recorded in 1924.
Despite this early discovery, asbestos was continuously used in construction materials such as drywall, plaster, vinyl floor tiles, fire blankets, hot water, steam pipes and countless other examples, until today. While asbestos is banned in the European Union, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and New Zealand, the United States has refused to take action on the matter.
The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, issued a final rule under Section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act banning most types of asbestos containing materials in the United States in 1989. However, the act was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court two years later, citing research that showed the ban would cost between $450 and 800 million dollars to implement, while only saving around 200 lives.
However this number is conservative in size. Research completed by the Environmental Working Group shows that 10,000 people in the United States die from asbestos-related diseases every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that there were 2,597 deaths alone from malignant mesothelioma (a cancer caused by asbestos exposure) in the United States in 2015. The numbers provided by the Fifth Circuit Court are clearly not matching up.
Despite all of the above research, asbestos use is still primarily unregulated. The EPA notes that landlords “should” inform their tenants if asbestos is present, but it requires no further action.
Asbestos, in all of its forms, is only considered “dangerous” when inhaled in large quantities; the asbestos fibers embed themselves into your lungs, harming the tissue and causing inflammation, scarring and the eventual growth of tumors. While the odds of this happening are pretty rare, the effects are almost certainly deadly. Mesothelioma has no cure, and the vast majority of cases end in death.
The process of getting rid of asbestos within a living space, which involves hiring an asbestos inspector and contractor, is a time-consuming and expensive path for any individual to take, much less a college student.
Therefore, it’s become clear that Berkeley’s “housing crisis” has placed many students on a tumultuous see-saw — attempting to find somewhere affordable that is also clean, healthy and livable. Oftentimes, as in my case, this balance was never reached. Clean, asbestos-free apartments should not be available only to students who can afford to live in newly built complexes that charge rent well above $1,000, but rather to any student anywhere.
Policy changes concerning infrastructural health need to happen on a schoolwide, regional and national scale. The UC system needs to provide more resources for students to find affordable housing, while the city of Berkeley needs to heavily regulate the quality of its infrastructure. The U.S. government needs to finally start regulating chemical substances, such as asbestos, that were proven to be harmful almost a century ago. It’s time we started making affordable, healthy homes the norm in Berkeley, not the exception.