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White Lies: Asbestos And The Damage Done

On March 9, the U.S. House of Representatives initiated markup of H.R. 1283, The Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act. However, this bill is anything but fair to the victims and families of asbestos, and would only shield the manufacturers of deadly asbestos products from full accountability for the devastation they have caused by stripping dying and injured Americans of their legal right. 

To truly understand the significance of this legislation, it might be good to review the facts about asbestos. Most people know that inhaling asbestos is dangerous, and that workers in shipyards and mines have died from being exposed to it. But what is asbestos, exactly? And how does it impact your life? 

What is Asbestos? 

"Asbestos" is actually the name for several minerals that can be broken down into fibers. These tiny, needle-shaped mineral fibers are resistant to heat and fire. People who inhale them do not feel their eyes or nose become irritated; for the most part these asbestos fibers have no bad taste or smell. 

When asbestos was first added to construction and consumer materials a hundred years ago, it was thought to be a great scientific advancement for our society. Manufacturers and consumers alike thought the fire-retardant properties of asbestos would save hundreds of lives. 

It would take another decade or so to learn the real danger of asbestos: the strong, thin fibers pierce the soft inner tissue of the body when they are inhaled or ingested, and once the asbestos fibers are embedded in the tissue they stay there, causing devastating diseases. The body tries to remove these fibers by breaking them down, but this removal process causes inflammations in the tissue. 

The body's reaction to the fibers can eventually lead to the development of diseases such as pleural disease (a thickening of the lining of the lung), asbestosis (a scarring of the lung tissue), lung cancer, and mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen).

Asbestos: What They Knew, When They Knew It 

The medical and asbestos-manufacturing communities learned of the harmful effects of asbestos early in this century: • In 1918, medical articles describing asbestosis first appeared in scientific literature. 

• In 1930, a medical inspector of factories in Great Britain published an article describing the clinical characteristics of asbestosis, the dust control required to prevent the disease, and the importance of educating workers about the hazards of exposure. 

• In 1934, the first major medical article linking asbestosis with lung cancer was published. 

• In 1948, a lab director for Owens-Illinois Glass Company (parent to Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation) determined that since its asbestos-laced pipe insulator Kaylo "is capable of producing asbestosis, it is better to discover it now in animals rather than later in [humans]..." 

• However, in 1955, Owens-Corning's Kaylo sales brochure states, "[Kaylo's] light weight, pleasant handling and non-irritating and non-toxic nature contribute to worker well-being." 

• In 1967, Louis P. Gray, assistant head of the Pipecovering Department at Newport News Shipyard, wrote a memo mandating the use of respirators when working with asbestos. Workers handling asbestos never saw the memo, and it was not enforced. 

• In 1979, Gray testified, "if you tell 300 people that what they are working with might cause cancer, you might not have anybody show up the next morning." 

• In April 1980, a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) stated that "[e]valuation of all available human data provides no evidence for a threshold or for a 'safe' level of asbestos exposure ...."

• In 1989, after 10 years of investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule banning the use of asbestos in the manufacture of products. 

• In 1991, in response to a lawsuit brought by the asbestos industry, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturns much of the EPA's ban, allowing many asbestos-laced products to be manufactured and sold in the U.S. 

In fact, asbestos-containing products are still being sold in the U.S. today. 

Have you been exposed to asbestos today? 

Americans have learned recently that asbestos exposure is far more widespread - and serious - a problem than originally thought. 

We've known for years that asbestos endangered builders and miners worked with it in shipyards, steel mills, and other work environments, as well as in asbestos mines. 

But only recently have we learned that many more people have been exposed to asbestos than previously known. 

The small town of Libby, Montana, depended for years on the jobs at the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. But the mine is closed now, and the town is paying a tragic price for those jobs. 

According to an alarming investigation series by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, at least 192 people have died from the asbestos in the mine's vermiculite ore, and another 375 people have been diagnosed with fatal diseases caused by this silent, invisible killer. And now W.R. Grace, which knew all along that its mining practices were killing the town, wants to be let off the hook for this tragedy. 

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer series, W.R. Grace was fully aware from the time it bought the Zonolite vermiculite mine in 1963 why the people in Libby were dying. But for the 30 years it owned the mine, the company did not stop it. Thousands of pounds of asbestos were spewed each day from the mill stacks, blanketing the town and contaminating its air and water. The unprotected miners and workers would inhale the asbestos, then unwittingly spread this hazard to their children and families when they arrived home covered in this toxic dust. The fall-out has been nothing short of disastrous. 

Besides the abovementioned deaths and illnesses, every month another 12 to15 people from Libby are being diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. And because it takes anywhere from 10 to 40 years from the time a person is exposed to dangerous amounts of asbestos for the diseases to reveal themselves, the killing in Libby will go on. Why the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act is Unfair to the People of Libby. 

Worse, for decades, millions of pounds of asbestos-laced vermiculite ore were shipped from the W.R. Grace Co. mine in Libby to at least 51 processing plants throughout the country. 

There, the ore was heated until it expanded to many times its size -- making it a commercially viable additive for potting soil, house insulation, and other consumer products. The workers who unloaded and processed the dusty cargo had no idea the ore contained tremolite, a highly toxic form of asbestos – W.R. Grace never told them. Nothing in the proposed legislation can erase this environmental catastrophe. 

"Asbestos - Aisle 8" 

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer series, together with several court cases against asbestos makers, have brought the current dangers of consumer asbestos use to light. "Environmental Protection Agency investigators are scouring store shelves to see if consumers are unknowingly buying asbestos, and the lethal fibers have turned up in some of the products they have tested," begins a February 14, 2000 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. 

The thought is frightening: store shelves. It seems that some producers of consumer products like potting soil and house insulation have been using asbestos in their products, without notifying consumers and, in some cases, the workers who manufactured it. 

But wait, wasn't asbestos banned? The answer is yes and no. Several government entities including the Environmental Protection Agency have the authority to regulate asbestos-containing products. From 1979 to 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency worked to craft a comprehensive ban on asbestos products. But the ban was only in effect for a short time. Members of the asbestos industry challenged the ban in the courts, and in 1991 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned most of the ban -- allowing many products containing asbestos to be produced. 

And that ban wasn't all the asbestos industry fought. Producers like W.R. Grace Co., the specialty-chemicals company featured in the book and movie A Civil Action, opposed the placement of warning labels on products that contained asbestos. "We believe that a decision to affix asbestos warning labels to our products would result in substantial sales losses," says one internal Grace memo written in 1977. 

Grace sold loose-fill insulation under the product name Zonolite until 1984. It has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of homes contain this product.

It's not clear what health costs consumers will pay as a result of using asbestos-laced products. The Environmental Protection Agency says that more testing is needed to determine the extent of the problem. We do know that asbestos exposure causes these diseases: pleural disease, a thickening of the lining of the lung; asbestosis, a scarring of the lung tissue; mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen; and lung cancer. All of these diseases are devastating. Most are fatal. 

Adding Insult to Injury 

ATLA, organized labor, and consumer groups are vigorously opposing the Fairness In Asbestos Compensation Act (H.R. 1283 and S. 758), which, by screening out as many as 80% of those injured by asbestos from the right to go to court, is anything but fair to asbestos victims and which provides no compensation or assurance of any. 

ATLA testified against H.R. 1283 in July (click here for a summary of this testimony). A Senate hearing on Sen. Ashcroft's S. 758 was held on October 5. ATLA president Richard H. Middleton, Jr., testified against this bill. His testimony and statement can be found here. 

ATLA will continue to vigorously oppose these measures, which assure not one penny of compensation to even one asbestos victim, while shielding from liability an industry responsible for the injury or death of millions of workers and consumers. 

Used with permission from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. All rights reserved.


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