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Cancer Risk Passes to Kin of Asbestos Workers
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Cancer Risk Passes to Kin of Asbestos Workers

Household Contact Asbestos Exposure

Unto the second generation, deadly asbestos fibers are now destroying the lungs of children of Paterson area asbestos workers of the 1940s, most of whom already have succumbed or are totally incapacitated from lung cancers and related diseases. 

This ominous development has surfaced during the continuing study of the hazards of asbestos that is being conducted by Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, director of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital Laboratory of Environmental Sciences. Dr. Selikoff heads a team that has been studying the effects of asbestos on the men who worked at the Union Asbestos and Rubber Co. of Paterson during the period it was in operation from 1941 to 1954. 

Whereas the initial findings of the study, which revealed the chance of dying from lung cancer presented a very real risk to anyone working in an asbestos plant, sparked agitation and the enactment of new legislation requiring tightened protective measures for workers, so this new development has touched off new pressures by labor groups for even tighter controls. 

George Perkel, research director of the National Textile Workers Union of America, says the union will be joining with others in the labor movement to demand enactment of "very strict standards," affecting not only exposure to workers inside the plants but making certain they do not carry asbestos fibers outside the plant. Labor will insist that special clothing, shower, dressing rooms, and protected locker facilities be provided for asbestos workers, in addition to in-plant protection from inhalation of asbestos fibers so that workers will not carry them home to their families. 

Dr. Selikoff's latest report reveals a high incidence of lung abnormalities among the families of the 632 men who worked in the Paterson asbestos plant during the 40s. Some 30 years later, several wives, children, and others with contact in the homes of asbestos workers are beginning to show the effects of indirect and often only brief exposure to the deadly mineral. According to Selikoff, evidence is mounting that intense exposure to asbestos is not necessary to produce asbestos-related diseases. 

Just a year ago, the Mount Sinai team enlarged its study to begin looking into the lives of those who lived with the Paterson workers. To date, they have established 210 family contacts from this limited investigation. X-ray studies have disclosed that 40 percent reflect the same kind of lung abnormalities found in plant workers. In some cases, the worker contact had spent only a few days on the job in the asbestos plant. During the past three months, three persons who were children when their parents or relatives worked in the plant were found to have mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen. One of the three was a 44-year-old woman whose father had worked at the plant for about a year in the mid-40s. He had worked the late shift, and every night she would bring him a hot supper. Another victim was the son of a man who had worked at the plant for a year. His sister, who had never smoked, had also died of lung cancer at the age of 39. Still another victim was the man's daughter who developed the asbestos material processed by the Paterson plant. She died in 1969 of mesothelioma, the same disease that had taken her father's life 14 years earlier.

In an address at the 16th Biennial TWUA convention, Dr. Selikoff gave a slide presentation on the Mount Sinai study. One of the slides showed a festive TWUA installation dinner in Paterson in 1943. Thirteen members of the asbestos plant union, Local 481, TWUA, were shown in the photo, along with Sol Stetin, now general president of TWUA national. Of the 13 workers at the dinner, five died of lung cancer, two of asbestosis, and three were totally disabled, gasping out their lives through scarred and pitted lungs. Only two, so far, had remained free of any symptoms. 

Search for Contacts: TWUA, nationally and locally, has agreed to try to seek out additional asbestos workers and their families. It will welcome any information that might locate them so they might be included in the research study. If these persons are found to be showing the effects of exposure, they can get started early on treatment. 

The appearance of damage among those with only limited exposure leads the Mount Sinai research team to fear "an eventual epidemic" of mesothelioma, Dr. Selikoff says. He notes that what is showing up today reflects the size of the workforce in the '30s and '40s when asbestos production was only one-tenth what it is today. He says that more than a million persons have worked directly with asbestos at one time or another. Some three million shipyard workers were exposed to the mineral during World War II, and
mesothelioma cases have surfaced among these people. In his talk to the textile workers, Dr. Selikoff said that what happened in the past cannot be undone but that it is essential now that "we make amends." 

He said that when workers go to their jobs, they accept that somebody is taking care of things - to keep a safe environment, so that (their) lives and health will be protected. "We know now there has been no 'somebody'." He said it is like the old nursery rhyme, "Who Killed Cock Robin" in which industrial hygienists, physicians, employers, and legislators offer legitimate excuses for past tragedies. "Not I, they say, and they are right," said Selikoff. "No one killed 'Cock Robin.' It was a sort of technological death of surveys not made, laws not passed, hearings not held, of work not done, and research not proposed. "I think (today's) young generation would put it a little differently." "They would say, 'No one failed. The system failed.' And they were right." 


© 2001-2023 Jon L Gelman. All rights reserved.

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This article was reported in the Paterson News 9/25/74 

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