Twinkie Trouble 

Asbestos rains on famous snack

Asbestos rains on famous snack

About a month ago, a maintenance worker at a suburban Chicago Twinkie plant decided to rip the insulation off of a water tank down in the boiler room. Then, proud as a cat with a mangled rabbit, he paraded the giant insulation wad through the production area of the plant. Well, wouldn’t you know, the insulation was loaded with asbestos, a known carcinogen. The deadly fibers rained down onto the snack cakes, including Twinkies, HoHos, Valentines, and the heart-healthy Oat Bran Muffins.

”They screwed up,“ said Tom Schafer, a spokesman for the Illinois Public Health Department. ”We think the entire plant is contaminated.“

The local spin on the story was tragicomic. Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate, posted this on its Web site: ”The union representing the workers says no one has complained of illness.“ Well, I reckon not. There’s usually at least a 15-year lag between asbestos exposure and the first telltale bloody sputum.

Channel 7 went on: ”Officials agree that the danger is minimal; we ingest a bit every day because it’s in the environment, even in our drinking water. The danger from asbestos comes from breathing the fibers rather than eating them. So don’t inhale those HoHos.“

Cute, but not exactly right. True, asbestos is famous for causing lung disease, but it has also been linked to some gastrointestinal cancers.

Interstate Brands, the mother company of the snack cakes, recalled the asbestos-laden units at the end of January. Still, if you’re smart, you’ll check your snack stash. Look for code ”57“ as part of the expiration date, the latest of which is Feb. 13. If you’ve got some of the deadly snacks, take ’em back to the store. From there, workers in space suits will take over, eventually depositing the cakes in a hazardous-waste landfill.

If you think this sounds a little extreme, consider that a Twinkie might just have a half-life equal to that of uranium. In 1989, Spy magazine published the results of Twinkie failure testing experiments. Here are some of the findings:

Exposure: A Twinkie was left on a window ledge for four days, during which time an inch-and-a-half of rain fell. Despite the rain and prolonged exposure to the sun, the Twinkie retained its original color and form. When removed, the Twinkie was found to be substantially dehydrated. Cracked open, it was observed to have taken on the consistency of industrial foam insulation; the filling, however, retained its advertised ”creaminess.“

Extreme Force: A Twinkie was dropped from a ninth-floor window, a fall of approximately 120 feet. It landed right side up, then bounced onto its back. The expected ”splatter“ effect was not observed. Indeed, the only discernible damage to the Twinkie was a narrow fissure on its underside. Otherwise, the Twinkie remained structurally intact.

You might not be able to kill a Twinkie, but a Twinkie might be able to kill you—if not directly, then indirectly. Some years back, a man who killed the mayor of San Francisco and a city commissioner got a reduced sentence when he claimed he’d loaded up on Twinkies before doing the crime. His defense was, essentially, that the Twinkies made him do it.

Now, getting back to that Chicago-area maintenance worker. He’s not the only untrained bubba who ever took on an asbestos-removal project. We see signs of this kind of thing in a lot of pre-1980 houses. There’s plenty of abandoned ductwork in attics, basements, and crawl spaces all over town. Often, the ducts were torn loose at the joints, leaving frayed white tape hanging loosely from the remaining pieces. That old-fashioned white duct tape is full of asbestos.

In old houses that had radiators, we often see remnants of the old asbestos-coated boiler and pieces of asbestos-insulated pipe. Usually, the remaining asbestos is frayed and crumbly.

As scary as this stuff is, we worry more about the cloud of asbestos that was released when the old ducts or pipes were taken apart. Chances are, some of the fallout is still around, and it gets kicked up whenever somebody walks over the floors or crawls through the crawl space.

If you see signs of amateur asbestos removal at your house, you might want to call an environmental engineer. You don’t want to emulate the Twinkie people and turn over your high-tech environmental cleanup work to a bubba in a pickup truck.

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