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Travel to Mental Institutions Risking Mesothelioma

Avoid contracting malignant mesothelioma while traveling to abandoned mental institutions.

Drifting through a maze of dark foreboding hallways covered in giant plastic tarps, I struggled to breathe through my respirator as if I were some poor-man’s version of Darth Vader in a bad horror movie. I wasn’t quite sure whether the resistance of my air filters was causing this difficulty or if it was the uneasy feeling that had overcome me due to the sheer creepiness of this place. As water slowly dripped from the ceiling and eerily splashed in frothy pools of dust and raccoon feces, the pale-yellow plaster looked as though ancient human skin was melting from the walls and the building around me decomposed.

In the very bowels of the building was a room so huge and surreal that it at first defied human comprehension. As far as the eye could see, there were old wooden gurneys, wheelchairs, and prosthetic devices used during the early 1900’s to assuage the tortured and forgotten souls who resided in this facility. Another section of the facility was rumored to have been utilized to perform lobotomies and was only accessible via an underground tunnel that seemed to have no end. Rounding a corner, I suddenly came face to face with an eight foot tall circus clown, obsequiously grinning ear to ear, exquisitely painted on the wall with an attention to detail by the likes of a deranged Michelangelo on Thorazine.

These were not hallucinations, although I was in the right place to have them but at the wrong time. I was inside Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, conducting an inspection for a colossal asbestos remediation project. Originally known as the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Morristown, this building was made of blocks of dark gray gneiss quarried from nearby locations. As a perfect compliment to the ominous presence of this edifice, strands of ivy clung to these gray blocks like the tendrils of insanity enshrouded the minds of those unfortunate enough to have been inhabitants of this place.

Greystone was the largest building foundation ever built in the United States from the time it was constructed in 1876 and was not surpassed until the construction of the Pentagon in 1943. One of the most notable patients was legendary singer Woodie Guthrie who referred to the hospital as “Gravestone” and was often visited by Bob Dylan. Since being closed in the late 1970’s, Greystone sat at the top of a rolling hill almost as though time had stood still. The self-sufficient complex was so extensive that it had its own post office, bowling alley, general store, bank, and even a working farm where pigs and other animals were raised to feed the patients and staff. To this day, newer buildings on the grounds are used to house criminally insane patients that wander aimlessly around the borders of the construction site. However the real danger lurks within the fibrous naturally occurring mineral asbestos coating the walls, floors, and piping systems throughout the building due to its fire and wear-resistant properties. Asbestos fibers, when inhaled, lodge themselves deep within human lungs and stay there permanently causing an irritation that the body tries desperately to heal but cannot. This is what leads to a plethora of nasty diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

Malignant mesothelioma is the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases and frequently involves severe respiratory problems. Coughing as I wandered the halls of Greystone, I wondered about the safety of this work. Mesothelioma was linked to asbestos in 1960. The instances of mesothelioma in the United States are minimal, numbering in the mere dozens. At this deranged place, though, I felt fully exposed. At least I was sure there was no risk of inhaling carbon nanotubes.

Currently, billions of dollars in lawsuits are transpiring between the victims of these diseases and those parties thought to be responsible. Plans call for the demolition of Greystone to clear the area so that expensive new townhouses can be constructed in an ever expanding network of faceless, repetitive residential complexes throughout New Jersey. Lost would be the uniqueness and strangeness of this gargantuan building, but at the same time, many of those that were treated here by archaic medical procedures and experimental pharmaceuticals probably feel it is better to forget that a place like this ever existed. As I continued my inspection, I became disoriented and lost my way due to the vastness of the facility and a distinct feeling of terror again swept over me. Then again, perhaps it was due to some other untenable psychological factor inherent to a place as imposing and bizarre as Greystone.

More Info on Mesothelioma

A layer of specialized cells called mesothelial cells lines the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the cavity around the heart. These cells also cover the outer surface of most internal organs. The tissue formed by these cells is called mesothelium. The mesothelium helps protect the organs by producing a special lubricating fluid that allows organs to move around. For example, this fluid makes it easier for the lungs to move inside the chest during breathing. The mesothelium of the chest is called the pleura and the mesothelium of the abdomen is known as the peritoneum. The mesothelium of the pericardial cavity (the “sac-like” space around the heart) is called the pericardium. Tumors of the mesothelium can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). A malignant tumor of the mesothelium is called a malignant mesothelioma. Because most mesothelial tumors are cancerous, malignant mesothelioma is often simply called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma was recognized in 1960 for its association with asbestos exposure. The first report linking mesothelioma to asbestos exposure was written by J.C.Wagner and described 32 cases of workers in the “Asbestos Hills” in South Africa. Since then, the relationship between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure has been confirmed in scientific studies around the world. The incidence of mesothelioma in the United States remains very low, with 14 cases occurring per million people per year. Despite these numbers, there has been a threefold increase in mesothelioma in males between 1970 and 1984, which is directly related to environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos, mostly in areas of asbestos product plants and shipbuilding facilities. Although the disease is much more commonly seen in 60-year-old men, it has been described in women and early childhood as well. The cause of the disease is not so well understood in these latter two groups, but there is some evidence of possible asbestos exposure for some of these cases as well.

Carlos Quantos