What's behind all of this?
The Coalition for Breathing Safety warned today that availability of respirators -- a key aspect of President Bush's National Strategy to Safeguard Against the Danger of Pandemic Influenza -- is threatened by the growing burden of questionable silica litigation, and called for federal legislation to address this problem.
"Respirators have long-played an important role in protecting workers against exposure to hazardous materials, and would be necessary in the event of a pandemic, terrorist incidents and other disasters," said Daniel K. Shipp, President of the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), a member of the Coalition for Breathing Safety.
"However, a wave of unfounded lawsuits claiming defective design or
failure to warn may force manufacturers to abandon production of respirators, when, conversely, what we need right now is to preserve U.S. respirator production capacity so that U.S. respirator manufacturers can help build stockpiles that will be available in case of a national emergency."
Respirator manufacturers and others are being sued by victims of silicosis who claim that defective design and warnings have lead to disease. In 2003 the state of West Virginia, along with western Kentucky coal miners filed against respirator manufacturers claiming they developed black lung disease and silicosis.
The dispute focuses on disposable dust masks that have replaced heavier cartridge respirators. A 2004 US News & World Report investigation found that:
the respirator mask that was to have revolutionized American industry in the '70s has today become a public-health calamity, and the dimensions of the problem are only now becoming apparent. The 3M Co., which produces everything from Post-it notes to Scotch tape, is one of America's best-known and most admired firms.The problem, according to government regulators, is that the disposable masks can't be satisfactorily tested to ensure that they form a tight seal around the face. Without fit-testing that ensures a tight seal, toxic dust gets around the mask into the lungs. But much scarier to respirator manufacturers than a few coal miners are the 1.7 million U.S. workers who are exposed to silica dust in jobs like construction, sandblasting, and mining and several hundred deaths that are reported each year. Respirator manufacturers (and other businesses) fear that silicosis will take the place of asbestos suits and are trying to nip this "crisis" in the bud.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers have already used the flu pandemic to convince Bush to urge Congress to exempt them from possible lawsuits against a flawed flu vaccine. Well, if it's working for big Pharma, why not for "big Respi":
Bush asked Congress to remove "one of the greatest obstacles to domestic vaccine production: the growing burden of litigation." He continued, "In the past three decades, the number of vaccine manufacturers in America has plummeted, as the industry has been flooded with lawsuits ... That leaves our nation vulnerable in the event of a pandemic ... Congress must pass liability protection for the makers of life-saving vaccines."Probably more to this story. Stay tuned.
Shipp stated, "Like vaccine makers, U.S. respirator manufacturers need federal legislation not only to protect against frivolous lawsuits, but also to provide manufacturers with the financial stability and predictability that will allow them to support the stockpiling of respirators. Such legislation would not prevent legitimate claims from being filed."