Saturday, April 22, 2006

In A "Go To Jail Issue" Asbestos Manufacturers Fight To Stay Free

Nothing sharpens the mind like the prospect of jail terms because you're found guilty on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and violations of the Federal Clean Air Act -- not to speak of knowingly exposing thousands of workers and citizens to asbestos.

What to do, what to do? How about running the clinic that's diagnosing cases of cancer and asbestos disease out of business? That's what staff of the (CARD) are accusing the WR Grace Company of doing. Grace executives were charged earlier this year in connection with the company's vermiculite mining operations in Libby, Montana. Grace's vermiculite is laden with asbestos and Grace's mining and milling operations spread the dust throughout the town. Grace executives were not just charged with contaminating the people and the town, but with conspiring to conceal information about the hazardous nature of the company’s asbestos contaminated vermiculite products, obstructing the government’s clean-up efforts, and wire fraud.

Grace had set up the Center for Asbestos Related Disease to diagnose and treat the hundreds of sick and dying people in Libby. But that was then...

Grace, a producer of chemicals and building materials, voluntarily pays for most of the medical treatment at the clinic. In recent months, the company's medical plan administrator imposed new rules that have made reimbursement more lengthy and involved, and pushed the clinic, its administrators say, into a cash-flow crisis. And the administrator said that a review it commissioned of past medical diagnoses in Libby found flaws in more than a quarter of the cases.

LeRoy D. Thom, who worked at Grace's vermiculite mine for 17 years as a foreman and is the vice chairman of the clinic's board, said he thought legal strategy and trial preparation could explain the company's actions.

"If they can put out the fact that people are being overdiagnosed, then they reduce the credibility of the doctors," he said.

Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a consulting pulmonologist at the clinic, is even more blunt.

"It's a go-to-jail issue," he said.

And jail would be such a bad idea? The grand jury that indicted the executives found that Grace knew when they took over the mine in 1960 that the vermiculite ore was tainted with asbestos and that asbestos exposure was deadly. Grace concealed this knowledge from the town and from the workers in Grace's 200 plants across the country. The biggest problem, however -- which EPA hasn't even begun to deal with -- is that asbestos-tainted vermiculite insulation remains in the attics of 35 million homes around the country, and has contaminated other communities with Grace's products were processed.
So far, more than 1,400 people in the Libby area, which has a population of about 8,000, have received diagnoses — many but not all, at the CARD clinic — of lung abnormalities related to asbestos exposure. And people are still coming forward.

"We see about 20 new patients a month, and that is ramping up," said Kimberly Rowse, a nurse and clinical coordinator at CARD. "We're seeing more and more people, and younger people, but our clinical resources are the same."

Medical experts around the country who support the clinic say there is more at stake than the patient care itself.

"These doctors stood up in the face of considerable pressures, including from some people in the town, and said, we have a real problem here," said Stephen M. Levin, the medical director of Mount Sinai School of Medicine's center for occupational and environmental medicine in New York. "To close this clinic would prevent us learning some very important things about this disease and what we might do about it."
The problem is that asbestos-related disease is difficult to diagnose, particularly with the type of asbestos found in Libby's vermiculite, and Grace executives are trying to spread the blame to particulate pollution, mainly from the smoke of wood-burning stoves.

Last November, Andrew Schneider of the Baltimore Sun reported that physicians hired by Grace's insurer, HNA, were challenging the findings of Libby physicians, national pulmonary specialists and federal public health experts, sending letters to more than a quarter of the 700 people covered by the HNA plan saying they show no signs of asbestos disease.

But it may also be that we ain't seen nothing yet.
In addition, the effects of asbestos often do not manifest themselves for years, or even decades. "Even if the clinic did overread their X-rays," said Dr. Jacqueline Moline, an associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Mount Sinai, "people are still at risk for developing disease, and that risk is not going to go away."
The company could face a fine of up to $280 million, and some Grace executives could be facing up to as many as 70 years in prison, making it quite tempting to make sure that the jury see's no evil.

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