Anthony Rich goes above the line of duty.
When the accredited asbestos building inspector leaves work for the day, his job doesn’t end.
In 23 years working in the industry, Rich has spent countless hours independently researching and collecting the infamous substance he deals with at job sites every day – deadly asbestos.
“I guess I’m the kind of person that doesn’t just do my job,” Rich told Asbestos.com. “My co-workers will come in, put in the time and go home. I want to learn more and that’s what I did.”
The more job sites and projects Rich worked — checking for asbestos or removing it — the more it piqued his interest about the carcinogenic mineral.
“I’ve had a unique opportunity in what I do to meet folks on the job sites,” he said. “I’ve been in every building you could think of, from houses to high rises. Office occupants, homeowners and anyone in between just have no clue that [asbestos] is in their building.”
Close-up shots of vibrant blue crocidolite asbestos and an emerald green serpentine mineral with wispy chrysotile fibers could be interpreted as artistic. But that isn’t Rich’s goal.
“I did the research and wanted to share this information to increase awareness,” he said. “That’s really the ultimate goal behind all of it. It’s more than just the job, it’s really just trying to share and help protect the public.”
Each photo includes a detailed description, identifying the type of asbestos pictured and a brief history of the sample or product.
The known cancer-causing mineral is the leading cause of mesothelioma, and it’s linked to other cancers and serious respiratory conditions.
The Life of an Asbestos Inspector
Rich knew he wanted to work in the field of occupational health and safety as an industrial hygienist, a profession which covers a range of disciplines and specialties.
But when he landed the job of an asbestos air monitor in 1993, he never imagined he would spend more than two decades working around the toxic mineral.
Like most people, he knew little about asbestos.
“Little to none,” he said. “It was a huge eye opener.”
His role grew to various types of asbestos consulting: Regulatory compliance, surveys, monitoring and abatement projects.
Each assignment brought new challenges and new “homework” opportunities.
“From a single day on the job, you find out there’s a lot more to this than you realize,” he said.
Rich has worked for three different asbestos inspection companies throughout his career. But he has spent the longest time with his current employer, a large national consulting firm. The company has given him the opportunity to work across the country, with a focus on his home state of Michigan and the Midwest. He chose not to disclose the name of the company.
While his co-workers and industry colleagues may not take their job to the extreme level as he does, Rich said they realize his objective is commendable and are generally supportive.
“To them, it’s just a piece of ceiling tile or a piece of this or that, but I look at it as something that can help increase knowledge for people who want to know more about this,” he said. “Or maybe they didn’t know and would realize something that they didn’t before and that might help prevent exposure.”
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A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
For photos not taken at job sites, Rich has a small studio in his home where he shoots stills of asbestos samples, products and vintage marketing items.
All that work is done in controlled conditions, using a HEPA hood, personal protective equipment and proper storage techniques.
“Everything is done safely,” he said. “Everything is then cataloged, categorized and stored for future reference.”
Of all the asbestos-containing items photographed in his studio, a few come from job sites, while the majority is from other sources, including antique shops and online marketplaces.
“It’s amazing what you can find,” he said.
And there’s plenty more to come.
“There are so many things that haven’t made it to the website,” he said. “I’ve yet had time to put towards this, but [the website] will probably wind up around 12,000 to 15,000 photos.”
Trade journals, textbooks and even a music video titled “Let’s Jump off the Toxic Treadmill” have featured his photos since he started publishing them on Flickr. He also has provided images to the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, where Rich serves as an active volunteer.
One of Rich’s most popular and eye-opening albums shows Kent Micronite Cigarettes, which contained crocidolite asbestos filters for particulate filtration. Unfortunately, the filters led to direct inhalation of dangerous asbestos fibers.
Zoomed-in photos show the ocean-blue fibrous crocidolite asbestos protruding from compressed layers of the crimped crepe-paper filter.
Kent Micronite Cigarettes are a microcosm of Rich’s mission: to raise awareness that these dangerous products existed and that you don’t have to have a history working in asbestos mines or factories to be exposed to the toxic mineral.
“This was a real product and people did suffer from using it,” Rich said. “It’s just a tragedy overall. I can’t imagine a more utterly regrettable product than putting crocidolite in cigarettes. It’s a double whammy and just horrible.”
Before the dangers of asbestos were known, manufacturers used the fibrous mineral in many household products, from Carosel Dish Towels that promised faster water absorption to Asbestos Pure White Snow, which touted its fireproof qualities and safety around the family Christmas tree.
Asbestos can still be found in some jewelry, something Rich saw firsthand at a gem and mineral show.
“I just glanced over, and here’s this stuff they’re calling green zebra stone,” he said. “It’s clearly very fine-veined chrysotile serpentine that’s been fashioned into different bead sizes and different gemstone types.”
At the bottom of the tray, Rich said he noticed small pieces of chrysotile asbestos had fallen from the veins.
Later, he found a vendor with tub after tub of pietersite, which contains inclusions of crocidolite.
The polished stone, a canvas of electric blue, orange and yellow, is brilliant, but in its natural state, portions are 100 percent fibrous crocidolite, Rich explained.
This not only presents major concerns for vendors and consumers but also for those at risk for asbestos exposure during collection, handling, transportation, engraving and the jewelry-making process.
“That’s just one little aspect of the whole picture,” Rich said in regard to the U.S. still importing asbestos from other countries and not fully banning the mineral. “Jewelry and these types of things are flying under the radar.”
People seem generally aware, he says, of the “usual suspects” such as pipe insulation and floor tile, but general awareness of asbestos in our everyday surroundings is low.
“The task of an inspector is to be thorough, and I try to do that,” he explained. “I found that being thorough increased the interest by having the clients realize there’s more concern in their buildings, and I think the occupants needed more of an explanation than just someone coming in and doing a mediocre job.
“I found that there was a real need for more information, so I just tried to learn as much as I could.”