Saturday, February 19, 2005

Asbestos: Cruel, Deadly and Uncompensated

Paul Brodeur, who many consider to be the "man who started it all" educating the American people with several books about the hazards of asbestos and the crimes of the manufacturers who hid the hazards, has an op-ed in the L.A. Times. Brodeur recalls the pioneering work of Dr. Irving Selikoff in the 1960's that showed the even relatively small amounts of asbestos could kill workers, but also that the deadly dust could be brought home on workers's clothes, contaminating their wives an children:
Is it any wonder that during the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of diseased asbestos workers brought product liability lawsuits against the manufacturers of asbestos insulation, which had failed to warn them of the hazard of inhaling asbestos fibers given off by the products? Or that most of these plaintiffs received compensation when they were able to prove that asbestos manufacturers had not only known for decades that asbestos could cause fatal lung disease but also had withheld this knowledge from them?

Since then, several hundred thousand lawsuits have been brought by construction workers, factory workers, refinery workers, brake mechanics and other members of the labor force who have either developed asbestos disease or whose chest X-rays show evidence of lung changes caused by their exposure. Asbestos diseases include asbestosis — a scarring of the lungs — lung cancer and mesothelioma, an always-fatal tumor.

Today, however, President Bush would have you believe that the justice system is being misused and that the economy is being held back by "frivolous asbestos claims." He and the Republicans in Congress are trying to convince the American people that there is no asbestos public health crisis, merely an asbestos litigation crisis, by pointing out that about 70 companies have filed for bankruptcy protection because of asbestos lawsuits, and that about $70 billion has already been paid out in claims and related costs.
Over the last weeks and months we have seen the unprecidented indictment of W.R. Grace, a giant company accused of contaminating an entire town, covering up the information, contaminating other communities were their factories are located and installing a product they knew was dangerous in millions of homes in the U.S. and Canada. As those buildings are renovated and torn down, people will continue to inhale the fallout for decades to come.

At the same time, more information emerges about the asbestos contamination of lower Manhattan from the World Trade Center attack, while labor unions and victims' attorneys are fighting the Republicans, the asbestos companies and insurance industry to craft some kind of fair asbestos compensation legislation in Congress:

Suffice it to say that Bush's attempt to convince us that this public health crisis should be viewed as a litigation crisis is a cruel hoax. So is the $140-billion asbestos compensation fund with which the Republicans in Congress, industry and its insurers propose to satisfy all asbestos claims present and future, while depriving claimants of their constitutional right to a jury trial. The fact is, the $140 billion was not arrived at through consideration of how many people may develop asbestos disease, or how much compensation they may deserve, but by asking industry and its insurers how much they would be willing to pay to eliminate their liability. Because no one knows how many asbestos victims will bring claims, whether the trust fund has any chance of remaining solvent is questionable.

Instead of extending a helping hand to companies that behaved with gross negligence, we should remember the plight of hundreds of thousands of past victims of asbestos disease and consider the suffering and economic burden of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens who will develop asbestos disease in the years to come.

As for Congress, it should set about to devise a truly fair asbestos compensation act.

Related Articles

Libby Montana and Tort Deform: What's Wrong With This Picture?: February 15, 2005
They Were Killing Us, They Were Killing Our Wives and Children: February 12, 2005
W.R. Grace Goes To Jail: "Why not all the others?": February 10, 2005