Thursday, February 10, 2005

W.R. Grace Goes To Jail: "Why not all the others?"

Reflections on the Indictment of W.R. Grace Executives

That was a question asked by Boston University Professor of Environmental Health David Ozonoff when he heard about the indictments of W.R. Grace executives for knowingly exposing thousands of workers and residents to asbestos. Ozonoff was referring to a number of bankrupt asbestos manufacturers whose products and working conditions contributed to a still unfolding disaster projected to kill as many as 500,000 workers.
Ozonoff said medical literature showed by 1930 that asbestos caused the disabling lung disease asbestosis; by 1949 that it caused lung cancer; and by 1960 that it caused mesothelioma, a rare and deadlier cancer. Asbestos makers knew even more, he said, but have been let "off the hook" by declaring bankruptcy.
The Columbia Journalism Review notes that journalist Andrew Schneider who broke the story in the major media in 1999 got to "write the story every reporter hopes to write"
Andrew Schneider's first story about the trail of asbestos-related deaths and disease in Libby, Montana appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in November, 1999. The vast deposits of vermiculite mined in the small Montana town were shot through with tremolite, an invasive form of asbestos that burrows deep into the lungs when inhaled. As Schneider wrote:
First, it killed some miners. Then it killed wives and children, slipping into their homes on the dusty clothing of hard-working men. Now the mine is closed, but in Libby, the killing goes on.

The W.R. Grace Co. knew, from the time it bought the Zonolite vermiculite mine in 1963, why the people in Libby were dying.

But for the 30 years it owned the mine, the company did not stop it. Neither did the governments. Not the town of Libby, not Lincoln County. Not the state of Montana, not federal mining, health and environmental agencies, not anyone else charged with protecting the public health.
For the last five years, Schneider, now at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has pursued the asbestos story, which has taken him from Libby to the hulking ruins of the World Trade Center. (When the twin towers were constructed, vermiculite from Libby, known as Zonolite, was used as fireproofing. Many health experts and rescue personnel believe that asbestos levels at the World Trade Center site were dangerously high, despite initial assurances from the EPA that the area was safe.)
I often praise those reporters like Schneider and David Barstow who bring to the otherwise ignorant public the tragic stories of workers who are killed or sickened on the job by employers who don't care.

And I waste no words criticizing those reporters who don't take the time to look beneath the surface of press releases and shall statements of sorrow to find the real -- and generally preventable -- causes of workplace injury, illness and death.

So it's nice to see some recognition for those who deserve it:
Every reporter knows there is a long and not always certain road between the high-profile announcement of an indictment and an eventual conviction. But this is a story that assuredly would never have moved forward without years of dogged, shoe-leather reporting by Schneider, who previously has been awarded two Pulitzers. It's worth reading through the Post-Intelligencer's excellent original series on Libby -- if only to be reminded why lots of us got into this line of work in the first place.
Although Schneider told the world about the contamination of Libby, Montana, W.R. Grace's coverup of asbestos hazards had been known well before. A 1998 article by Brown university professor David Egilman in the journal Accountablity in Research described how Grace purchased the mine in 1963 and immediately learned of the asbestos-related health problems. Grace nevertheless covered up the problem and fought the inclusion of tremolite asbestos (the type found in the mine) in OSHA's 1976 asbestos standard, despite the fact that Grace had funded (but never published) a study showing that the tremolite asbestos caused cancer.

Egilman has dedicated much of his career to forcing corporations to inform workers and the public about the information they possess concerning the hazards of their products. As he wrote about W.R. Grace
These actions were intentional, and were motivated by Grace's conscious decision to prioritize corporate profit over human health.


The economic interests of corporations should not take priority over the health needs of workers and the public. In the case of W.R. Grace & Co. , this unethical practice has led to the exposure of thousands of workers and building occupants to hazardous asbestos, and ultimately resulted in lung disease, cancers and death.
The only mistake that Egilman made in 1998 was to underestimate the scope of the problem created by Grace; it went far beyond thousands of workers and building occupants. Schneider, who moved from Seattle to the St. Louis Dispatch, wrote later of the contamination of neighborhoods in the vicinity of other Grace vermiculite plants, and in 2002 Schneider reported that millions of homes in the United States contained "Zonolite" insulation, made from the asbestos-laden vermiculite mined in Libby.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would immediately remove asbestos-contaminated insulation from hundreds of homes in Libby, Mont.

But it won't even warn homeowners in the rest of the country that their houses could contain the same dangerous substance.

Post-Dispatch reporter Andrew Schneider reports that the insulation, called Zonolite, is in an estimated 1.2 million homes in Missouri and Illinois, as well as millions more around the country.

Left alone, Zonolite isn't much of a hazard. But if it is disturbed -- and it could be disturbed by something as innocuous as adding a light fixture -- it can release dangerous asbestos fibers at levels that are dozens of times beyond what's considered safe.


In September [2001], EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said her agency would do a better job protecting the public because of the hard-won knowledge about asbestos toxicity it gained there. "We want everyone who comes in contact with vermiculite -- from homeowners to handymen -- to have the information needed to protect themselves and their families," Ms. Whitman said.

Those sentiments have apparently been trumped by a more practical concern. The cost of removing Zonolite insulation from every American home could reach $10 billion. Even so, the cost of warning homeowners would be considerably less.

Two years have passed since doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service asked the government to warn homeowners and contractors about the risks of Zonolite. Still nothing has been done.

If the insulation is hazardous in Libby, it's equally hazardous in St. Louis. It's time for Ms. Whitman to make good on her promise and to warn the public.

Of course, while some try to look the other way, others choose to believe that it's corporate America that is being abused, despite what the facts say. Revere at Effect Measure (who has a better memory than I do) recalls an article last year in The Nation by asbestos sleuth Paul Brodeur about a certain physician/politician/Senate Majority Leader who is hopefully eating his words:


President George Bush has declared that tort reform will be a major part of his forthcoming political campaign. In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill First has said that he will make it a "personal priority" in the present session of Congress to deal with what he calls "the current asbestos litigation crisis." first intends to do this by persuading his colleagues to enact Senator Orrin Hatch's Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, known as the FAIR Act to its advocates, and as the Frist/Hatch asbestos bailout bill to its detractors.

In a recent speech before the senate, Senator Frist described the Johns-Manville Corporation and W. R. Grace & Company as "reputable companies" that had been driven into bankruptcy because of asbestos litigation.

And that, my children, is why we need to pass "tort reform" and get rid of those "frivolous asbestos claims."