Since Covid-19, the meetings have moved online. I attended one of the group’s very first meetings, which included around 20 men and women. The members took turns introducing themselves, while a couple of toddlers sat at the back of the hall playing games on their parents’ iPhones sans headphones.

Bienvenido compañeros a nuestra familia de trabajadores,” said Jorge Roldan, a 46-year-old man in a cancer survivor T-shirt adorned with pink ribbons. Roldan, the president of the group, came to the US from Mexico without papers when he was a child. As an adult, he has survived two bouts of peritoneal mesothelioma. He said doctors saved his life by carving out the contaminated parts of his gut, similar to how he used to carve asbestos-contaminated tiles out of roofs.

At the meeting, Roldan encouraged others to stay positive about their lives: “Today it’s raining,” he said, pointing outside, “and you could stand here and be complaining, coño la lluvia.” Screw the rain. “Or you could think, ‘Finally the plants get a little water.’”

Roldan and Crespo see bringing abatement workers together as an act of resistance and community. Even before the pandemic, the group raised funds through Facebook and GoFundMe for workers who got sick or died. Now Crespo expects that work will double, or even triple, as they try to attend to all the families who have lost their breadwinners to Covid-19.

“Even more people passed away,” he said. “We need to help their families, their kids, help them find a new job.”

Crespo said the threat of contracting coronavirus doesn’t scare him that much, because he’s used to worrying about his health from asbestos exposure. But it’s an added incentive to help others leave the industry, although the current high unemployment rate turns it into a catch-22: This line of work may be deadly, but it comes with the near-guarantee of a steady paycheck.

Still, the pandemic hasn’t changed Crespo’s own plans to escape. After 20 years on the job, he is trying to get a diploma in financial analysis, taking evening classes while working full time. He’d like to be a stockbroker on Wall Street, but his main goal is to stop doing abatement work.

“Before it’s too late,” he said.

In 1902, the British Inspector of Factories listed asbestos as a harmful industrial substance. And yet over the next several decades, the international asbestos industry continued to boom. In the 1930s, the US asbestos industry successfully lobbied against government regulatory efforts, despite being aware of the health risks. Asbestos was just too profitable to give up, wrote Gerald Markowitz, a historian and professor of occupational safety and health at John Jay College. By 1973, the United States was still using more than 804,000 tons of asbestos per year.

Although asbestos use remained robust in the US, in the 1970s the Environmental Protection Agency started taking some measures to limit its use. In recognition of the dangers it poses to human health, the EPA banned asbestos from being used in a handful of products such as insulation spray—something the UK had already done back in 1931. Finally, in 1986, the government passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act that declared that in places where asbestos fibers could become friable—easily crushed into powder and dispersed into the air—such as building sites, crumbling infrastructure, old constructions, popcorn ceilings, or places where asbestos insulation had been flocked onto a surface, the material needed to be removed by a team of specialists: abatement workers.