Friday, November 04, 2005

Hallelujah: Grace Miraculously Cures Asbestos Victims

Hopefully you were able to watch tonight's Nightline program on W.R. Grace asbestos tragedy in Libby, Montana. If not, you have two options: Check out part 2 on Friday night, and/or read this article in the Baltimore Sun by Andrew Schneider who broke the orginal Grace story in 1999.

In case you've missed hearing anything about this story, hundreds of deaths and more than 1200 illnesses have been diagnosed among the residents of Libby and surrounding communities from exposure to Grace's asbestos-laden vermiculite. These include not only workers who worked at W.R. Grace, but family members and residents who had no relation to the plant but breathed the air contaminated by the 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of asbestos a day that spewed up the stacks.

The worst thing about the contamination is the Grace executives knew that they were killing their workers and the community. W.R. Grace & Co. and seven of its current or former executives and department heads were indicted last February for attempting, for attempting, since the 1970's, to hide the fact that toxic asbestos was present in vermiculite products at the company’s Libby, Montana plant.

But it's still getting worse (if that's possible):
Lloyd Arlt was breathing hard when he reached his roadside mailbox 100 feet from his front door. Even though oxygen flowed from a tank strapped to his back, he was forced to pause, trying to catch his breath.

As he shuffled back to his mobile home, he pulled two envelopes from Health Network America from the mail. One letter was addressed to his wife, the other to him.

"I got halfway down the first page and broke out laughing," said Arlt, a 79-year-old former heavy equipment operator. "Here's this letter from the insurance company for W.R. Grace who poisoned the countryside with asbestos telling me that I'm cured. Since 2000, doctors have run test after test and told me that the lining of my lungs is crusted with asbestos and was getting worse."

The letter to Marjorie, his wife of 58 years, also declared her free of asbestos-caused disease. Similar letters went to 178 others who had worked or lived in and around Libby and been exposed to asbestos fibers from vermiculite ore mined by Grace, an international chemical company based in Columbia. Like the Arlts, they had been diagnosed as ill and eligible for the health care that Grace promised residents of this mountain valley.

In a dispute over the validity of the victims' medical diagnoses, physicians hired by Grace's insurer, HNA, are challenging the findings of Libby physicians, national pulmonary specialists and federal public health experts. In the past two months, more than a quarter of the 700 people covered by the HNA plan have gotten what some residents call "miracle letters" saying they show no signs of asbestos disease. The rest of the victims covered by the plan got letters affirming their diagnoses.

Those who were declared disease-free were told their X-rays had been reviewed by one or more radiologists working for the insurer. "In your case, none of the peer reviewers was able to identify an asbestos-related disease or condition," the letter said.

"Now Grace is performing miracles, curing people with simple letters that say they are free of disease," said Gayla Benefield, whose husband, David, and a nephew received letters saying they are disease-free. Her letter agreed she has asbestos disease. In her extended family, 42 people have died from asbestos disease, are sick from it or are at risk, she says.
So is what Grace saying true? Hardly:
In a review of 10 patient files, a leading pulmonologist in Detroit found signs of asbestos disease in nine, including Lloyd Arlt's, and suspected it in the remaining case. The clinic plans to send additional cases to experts elsewhere to present to HNA, which has the last word on patient appeals.
Meanwhile, those "cured" by Grace are now unable to get their medical bills paid.

And what is Grace's motive?
Washington attorney Peter Lockwood says Grace's motivation is monetary. Lockwood is with Caplin & Drysdale, the law firm appointed by the bankruptcy court to represent the interests of those people who have asbestos injury claims against Grace.

"Grace has a very significant financial interest in reducing the number of people everywhere who could validly claim the company's actions made them sick. Decisions made by their health plan is one way," Lockwood said, referring not only to the bankruptcy proceedings in which he is involved but also to the criminal cases.

"Probably, if you're the prosecutor in the case, the more people that got sick and the more serious their illnesses were, the better the case you have," he said. "If Grace is going to be asking its experts to tell the court that the claims out of Libby are worthless, it would be somewhat inconsistent for its health program up there to be saying, 'Oh, my. You people are all really sick and you need a lot of medical treatment.'"

Grace, which last year had 6,500 employees and sales of $2.3 billion, said it lost $402 million in 2004 because of the latest amount set aside to pay potential claims.

Dr. Alan Whitehouse, the pulmonary specialist who first documented asbestos illness in Libby residents in 1980, has this view: "What Grace is doing by magically declaring them cured is an attempt to minimize their liability for future medical care."
Finally, the Grace tragedy was not just limited to Libby, Montana. Grace's vermiculate was shipped throughout the country to be processed where in contaminated thousands of other workers and dozens of communities. That's the subject of tomorrow's Nightline.

The basic facts about Grace and Libby:
  • Hundreds of deaths have been linked to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from its mine, once the world's largest producer. More than 1,200 illnesses were diagnosed out of 6,600 residents of Libby and surrounding counties who were tested.

  • It was not just the miners who became sick and died, it was their spouses who washed their work clothes, their children who rushed to hug them, the kids who raced on the contaminated high school track and the people who spread the feather-weight vermiculite in their gardens and stuffed Grace's Zonolite insulation in their walls and attics.

  • Most residents inhaled the fibers from just living in Libby and the surrounding valley, where a persistent air inversion trapped the fibers. Court records show that between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of asbestos a day spewed up the stacks at the sorting plant.

  • Grace filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001 because, according to its Chairman, it was the only way to protect itself from tens of thousands of lawsuits claiming death or illness from exposure to asbestos in Grace products or from its facilities.

  • Last February, the Justice Department indicted Grace and seven current or former executives and managers on federal criminal charges that they knowingly endangered the public and Libby mine workers through exposure to asbestos and concealed the information. If found guilty, Grace could be fined up to $280 million and individuals could face prison terms of up to 60 years.

  • In declaring the area a Superfund site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called Libby "the most horrific environmental disaster in this country's history."

  • In June, New Jersey's attorney general filed civil charges against Grace and two executives for allegedly concealing asbestos contamination at its former vermiculite processing plant in Trenton.
UPDATE: For those of you who missed the Nightline series on the W.R. Grace Asbestos tragedy in Libby, Montana and around the country brought to you by W.R. Grace, you can watch the program at the Nightline webpage night one here and night two here.

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