Monday, July 28, 2003

Asbestos Comp Feud: Round 20 and Still Rewriting History

The story of attempts to pass an asbestos compensation bill is old and getting older:
WASHINGTON -- Thousands of workers unknowingly exposed to cancer-causing asbestos were sick and dying. The courts were clogged with lawsuits. Asbestos manufacturers were going bankrupt. And Congress was debating whether to create a fund to compensate victims.

The year was 1982. Twenty-one years later, Congress is still debating the issue.
The difference now is that the asbestos crisis has grown far worse. Hundreds of thousands of additional victims have stepped forward. The number of corporate defendants has jumped 28-fold. And their potential liabilities exceed $200 billion.
The Senate committee has passed a bill establishing a compensation fund and the unions, quite understandably, think the fund is too small. The insurance companies think it's too big and Orrin Hatch's Republicans and businesses think it's just right. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Heard it all before. Will continue to hear it. Who knows? Maybe they'll figure something out eventually.

But this is an interesting paragraph:
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was once used widely in many industrial processes because of its fire-retardant and insulating properties. When inhaled, though, asbestos fibers can cause lung disease and cancer. As a result, its use has been sharply curtailed in recent years though it is still found in vehicle braking systems, asphalt roof coatings and gaskets.
Let me repeat part of that: "When inhaled, though, asbestos fibers can cause lung disease and cancer. As a result, its use has been sharply curtailed in recent years."

If one didn't actually know the history of asbestos, one might think that the fact that "its use has been sharply curtailed" was somehow related to the fact that it "can cause lung disease and cancer."

Actually, the asbestos industry knew as early as the 1930's that asbestos caused serious lung disease. They hid it until courageous people like Dr. Irving Selikoff uncovered the health effects and the scandals in the 1960's. And then more decades would pass before decent regulations were issued to "curtail its use" and protect workers. Even today workers are still being exposed to the asbestos left over in buildings and still being used in pipes and automotive brakes.

Despite the impression given by this article, none of this progress happened by itself or because it 'was learned' that asbestos kills. It happened because of lawsuits and organizing by unions, sick workers and public health activists. And this is not just a tragic isolated story about asbestos. Look at any law or regulation that protects workers. No progress has ever been made in this country in the fields of occupational health or the environment because someone 'discovered' that harm was being done. Nothing happens without organizing, electing the politicians that will actually represent workers and communities, keeping the pressure on them once they are in office, and then more organizing.

It can be done. It has been done. It will be done again. But for many it's way too late:
More than 625,000 people have filed claims for asbestos-related injuries over the years. By the end of 2000, businesses and insurers had paid out more than $54 billion in claims, according to a 2002 Rand Corp. study. More than half the money went to defense and plaintiff attorneys' fees and other administrative expenses, the study said.

Rand found that more than 300,000 cases were still pending and another 500,000 to 2.4 million claims could be filed in the years ahead, costing businesses upward of $210 billion. There are more than 3,000 asbestos lawsuits pending in the New Jersey court system.

Sixty-seven companies have filed for bankruptcy because of their asbestos liabilities, compared with three back in 1982, and additional companies are likely to seek Chapter 11 protection.
I can't help wondering, even with the pain that this situation is causing these companies and the economy, how much information about toxic chemical is being covered up and how many more asbestos tragedies thousands will have to endure before people wake up.

In Europe, good things seem to be happening. Here in the U.S., we seem to be heading in exactly the opposite direction.

More on the asbestos comp bill here and here.