Sunday, September 26, 2004

Time Bombs In Their Lungs? "I didn't know what asbestos was"

Yet another story of workers who spent years working in clouds of asbestos, tracking it home on their clothes, while the company told them it was harmless. In this case, it was a Union Carbide (currently owned by Dow) mine. (And in case anyone's keeping track, Union Carbide was also the owner of the Bhopal chemical plant that killed thousands twenty years ago in a methyl-isocyanate leak).
Art Valdez spent 26 years working in the dust in the nation's last asbestos mill, pulling down $17.85 an hour before the place shut down last year.

He had a pension and five weeks' paid vacation. He had health insurance for his family. He could afford to give cars to his two boys, visit friends in Texas and take his wife to Denny's as often as he wished.

"I didn't know what asbestos was," he recalled recently. "I thought that was the best job ever."

He didn't fret when the bagging machines spewed powder all over him, or when he drove home with his maroon Silverado covered in white residue. He didn't think much about the sludge cake he tracked into the house on his steel-toed boots or the dust that clung to his black hair and scattered when he hugged his kids.

Even after learning about the sometimes fatal hazards of asbestos, Valdez didn't imagine that it might damage his lungs or mark him for cancer. The mill bosses told him that the kind of asbestos Union Carbide Corp. scooped out of the Diablo Mountains north of the Central California town of Coalinga wouldn't hurt him, he said, and he believed them.

The workers who milled Union Carbide's trademarked Calidria asbestos, Valdez said, "took the word of the company from Day One."
As late as the late 1970's when the deadly nature of asbestos was well known, Union Carbide sought to reassure its workers that everything was OK:
In 1978, ... federal health authorities launched a campaign to alert shipyard workers that their exposure to boats' asbestos-laden insulation put them at risk for asbestosis and cancer. The first asbestos lawsuit had been filed in 1966 by a man who had been found to have asbestosis, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that the scope of the perils of inhaling the fibers began to be widely recognized.

King City mill hands were alarmed. They said Union Carbide moved to reassure them. In a draft of a letter to employees disclosed in a lawsuit — it's unclear whether the letter actually went out — the company wrote: "The problems you are hearing about on TV are not relevant to our plant and our operations."

The assertions about Calidria set some minds at rest.

"They showed us some kind of reports, scientifically, that it had been proven" that the asbestos milled in King City dissolved in the lungs before doing harm, said Eugene Plaskett, who worked at the mill for 33 years and is now a Baptist minister and farm equipment fabricator. "I was taking their word for it."

He said recently that he still believed Calidria was harmless. In any case, he said, "it was my choice to work there."


In 1974, long after some studies had shown that exposure to even low doses of asbestos could cause cancer, Union Carbide handed out a brochure titled "What Every Worker Should Know About Asbestos." It encouraged its mill hands to quit smoking and promoted dust-control efforts. But it also implied that workers would be safe inhaling some asbestos — just not too much.

"When mines and factories are properly controlled," the brochure said, "the asbestos content of the air will be low and within safe levels, and will present no hazard to the employee."

The year the mill opened, Union Carbide's corporate medical director sent to a manager a copy of a book on lung disease, including a chapter on asbestosis. "It is not the sort of book," he said in an accompanying letter, "we would want readily available to plant personnel in general."

Union Carbide also didn't share with workers the details of a study it commissioned three years later comparing the scarring potential of its asbestos with that mined in Canada. Injected into the bellies of rats and guinea pigs, the confidential report concludes, Calidria "produces the most severe reaction." (Union Carbide now says the test was too crude to have any validity. Other experts disagree.)
Meanwhile, Kelly-Moore paint company is suing Dow for actual damages of $1.3 billion — its anticipated liabilities and legal costs — plus punitive damages of $3.9 billion, because Carbide sold asbestos to Kelley-Moore to thicken its paint, claiming that it was "a uniquely safe alternative to potentially deadly types of asbestos" even while Union Carbide witheld evidence linking the product to cancer and asbestosis.

According to Kelley-Moore's lawyer, Mark Lanier,

Union Carbide was a member of the Industrial Hygiene Foundation, which commissioned a study that linked chrysotile, the type of asbestos sold by the company, to cancer. But then the group publicly reported just the opposite. And in the 1960s, he said, a few years after Union Carbide discovered the world's largest cache of asbestos in California and opened its mill near King City, its own tests indicated that Calidria caused more damage to the lungs of rats than the asbestos sold by Johns-Manville.

"Instead of telling companies and people and stopping the asbestos market right there, they hide it," Lanier told jurors. "They start pushing their asbestos in every product they can because, you see, that disease of asbestosis takes 20 or so years before you get it. The cancer takes 20, 30, 40 years before you get it. And these guys were going to make their killings right then."

In the early 1970s, Lanier contended, Union Carbide began to realize that in a few years, its customers would recognize that what it was selling was a hazard and quit buying."So why don't we, quote, 'Make hay while the sun shines'?" Lanier said, referring to a memo in which Union Carbide considered building a larger mill to get asbestos to market more quickly.

Carbide argues that "recent research shows that its asbestos doesn't cause lung disease or cancer because its fibers are so short that they are swiftly expelled after a person inhales them."