Baltimore is a port city with a long history of shipbuilding, and that unfortunately means that it is also a city with a history of asbestos exposure and malignant mesothelioma diagnoses. The port’s shipyard was a busy place for decades, and critical to the construction and fabrication of many military vessels, as well as the city’s infrastructure. Today, there are untold number of people who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases as a result of the toxic exposure they unknowingly suffered while working, and that has led to an enormous number of malignant mesothelioma cases waiting to be heard. In the face of a backlog, a local state senator called a hearing to investigate the best way forward, and was treated to opposing views coming from those representing plaintiffs and those representing the asbestos companies.
The hearing about mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease cases was requested by state Senator Robert Zirkin, the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Speaking of the discord on the subject, he said, “One side says there are thousands of cases ready for trial and one side says there are zero. Both can’t be true.” His goal is to evaluate the current standing of the outstanding cases and find a way to make the process more efficient.
According to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys who testified, there are over 22,000 asbestos cases in the Baltimore Courts that have not yet resolved, plus another 7,000 that are considered inactive as those exposed to asbestos have reserved the right to file a claim if they are diagnosed with mesothelioma at a later date. Attorneys representing asbestos settlement trusts and asbestos companies are arguing against a revised process, claiming that doing so will create a legal “superhighway” that allows cases to be pushed through, despite not meriting compensation.
A judge who testified in the case indicated that a system that had recently been put in place was already helping to clear cases more quickly, but he was unaware of how many more mesothelioma cases were still pending.
Following studies of the impact of early palliative care on the survival time of lung cancer patients, a group of researchers from Perth, Australia decided to test whether the same was true for those who had been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. But after screening hundreds of patients and following the cases of nearly 200, the scientists concluded that for mesothelioma patients, care being offered was so superior and comprehensive that there was no apparent benefit to adding an additional layer of early palliative care.
The mesothelioma study was conducted by Dr. Fraser Brims of the Curtin University, and funded by both the British Lung Foundation and the Australian Foundation. It followed guidelines handed down by the American Society of Clinical Oncology that had recommended early palliative care following a landmark trial conducted by Dr. Jennifer S. Temel back in 2010. But the study that was conducted on patients diagnosed with mesothelioma found no difference in quality of life at 12 weeks between the group that had been seen by an early specialist in palliative care and those who hadn’t.
Upon reviewing his results, Dr. Brim felt that the study had been well designed, and that the information gleaned reflected good news. “At first I was disappointed with the results. Then i got to thinking, and I suspect that the current provision of care was already excellent.” He pointed out that the patients would already have been seen by a series of practitioners who were dedicated to providing holistic care, including good palliative treatment, and that is why the additional layer of treatment was not necessary. His conclusion was supported by Dr. Sanjay Popat, a consultant thoracic medical oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Dr. Popat said that because mesothelioma has such painful symptoms, early care would by necessity have already addressed those issues, making the need for palliative care obsolete.
Of all the people who are at risk for malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, it is those who work in the construction trades that continue to be in the most danger. The buildings that they are renovating and demolishing and the infrastructure that they are replacing and repairing were largely made using asbestos back in the days before its dangers were well known, and this means that even though the material is no longer in use, it still poses grave risks. This is true all over the world, but perhaps nowhere so much as in the United Kingdom, where asbestos use continued until the year 2000 and the laws are not as stringent regarding asbestos remediation as is true in the United States. To combat this problem and slow the rate of mesothelioma deaths, the country’s Health and Safety Executive has initiated a Beware Asbestos Campaign, which includes a web app specifically designed to help tradespeople know the correct procedures needed to protect themselves against exposure to the carcinogenic material.
The Beware Asbestos App has been both praised and criticized, but the administration behind it reminds its critics that it is meant to minimize the risk of malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases – not to provide intricate and complex information. According to Craig Bell of the Health and Safety Executive, their research indicated that designing the app so that it would provide too much information might have been counterproductive. “The aim of the campaign is to help this particular group of tradespeople to work more safely. By making the information easy to understand and digest, there is a greater likelihood that people will take positive action to protect themselves and that we will help save lives. We have developed our materials using evidence about how our target audience thinks and behaves and what we can do to encourage them to work more safely. As a result, the web app, asbestos kits and other materials have been developed specifically to address the needs of the campaign’s audience. It is campaign material which complements other HSE guidance on asbestos; it does not replace HSE guidance.”
Today, people who have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma and asbestosis are recognized as victims of asbestos exposure, and are encouraged to pursue their legal rights against those responsible, but that was not always the case. The mineral has been used since “cave man” times, when it was incorporated into clay for cooking pots and in Ancient Egypt where it was used to wrap and preserve mummies. By the 20th century the material was used in countless industrial applications, and as quickly as its use spread, people began to realize that it was causing health problems.
In the late 19th century experts began to express concerns about the dust raised in factories using asbestos, and though mesothelioma had not yet been named or classified, its ravages were being felt. One inspector referred to asbestos as the “evil dust” as he recognized that people were being sickened by it, and by 1906 there reports of multiple deaths among factory workers exposed to the mineral. Insurance companies in Canada and the United States began to refuse to issue life insurance policies to those who worked in asbestos factories.
By the 1920s and 1930s people began to realize the full extent of asbestos-related diseases, and investigators began to make scientific inquiries as to what was happening to those who were dying after occupational exposure. One of the most notable cases involved a 33-year old woman named Nellie Kershaw who worked in an asbestos textile factory for 19 years, until she became to sick to continue. In a remarkable foreshadowing of the actions of modern asbestos companies, her employer refused to provide compensation for her despite the pleas of her husband and her diagnosis of “asbestos poisoning”. After her death an autopsy revealed that her lungs were riddled with asbestos fibers and she had essentially suffocated to death.
In response to cases like these, the British government began to insist that companies offer protections for asbestos workers, as well as to clean up their environment and offer both medical exams and small amounts of compensation. In the United States those actions took longer to take hold, and many are still being diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis today.
When people around the world think of asbestos, their minds automatically jump to malignant mesothelioma and other deadly diseases caused by exposure to the toxic mineral. Asbestos was widely used as industrialized countries like the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom built up their infrastructure throughout the late 19th century and throughout much of the 20th centuries: it was only in the last 50 years or so that the carcinogenic nature of the material was discovered and its use began to be banned and diminished. As a result of that constant use, tens of thousands have been sickened and died, and proactive measures are supposed to be taken to protect against exposure to asbestos that is still in place. When those safety measures are not enacted, workers have to take matters into their own hands, and that is exactly what is happening in Australia today. Thirty-five electricians have walked off the job rather than subject themselves to exposure to this toxic material.
The situation is unfolding at the Sydney Opera House, where 25 electricians working on the building’s $200 million renovation fear mesothelioma after having been exposed to asbestos in a service duct. That incident took place two months ago, and safety measures were supposed to be taken to prevent exposure from occurring again. Now friable asbestos has again been found as electricians work to install cables throughout the building, and rather than risk exposure the electricians have walked off the job. According to the secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, Dave McKinley, “Electricians yesterday raised the alarm that they were again being exposed to loose asbestos fibers, which has now been confirmed by scientific testing. Two months after this major safety issue was uncovered, and the builder was ordered to rectify it by the safety regulator, we again have seen workers exposed to these carcinogenic fibers. Throughout my career I’ve worked with people who have died from asbestos and it’s a horrible, horrible, miserable disease. These guys won’t know for 15, 20 maybe 30 years if this exposure is actually fatal.”
The builder responsible has claimed that they are taking all appropriate precautions and have threatened to prosecute the electricians over the work stoppage. Mr. McKinley stated, “It’s pretty clear the system is broken when workers are threatened with legal action for refusing to expose themselves to a deadly substance like asbestos.” A spokesman for the State Opposition has called on the government’s arts minister to fulfill his “professional and moral obligation” to ensure no-one is exposed to asbestos.”
Certainteed Corporation has been named as a defendant in a mesothelioma lawsuit filed by an Idaho couple. The claim, filed in September in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, has accused the company of negligence, strict liability and loss of consortium as a result of the husband having been diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer known as malignant peritoneal mesothelioma after having been exposed to asbestos in Certainteed’s water and sewer pipes.
Peritoneal mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they become embedded in the cells of the organs lining the lungs or the abdomen.These fibers cause the cells to die and then the cells in the area to mutate into cancerous tumors. When the tumors form in the abdomen it is called peritoneal mesothelioma; when they form in the lungs it is pleural mesothelioma. Both are deadly, and have a median survival of less than two years.
In the case of the Idaho man who has filed the lawsuit, his mesothelioma was first diagnosed in June of 2014, and though his physician initially told him to expect to die within 8 months’ time, he has beaten the odds and is still alive. That survival has not come without its price: he has had to endure enormous pain and debilitation, and treating the disease has cost him tremendous amounts of money.
According to the lawsuit, the man was exposed to asbestos in 1976 when he was just 24 years old. He had accepted a summer job working for a private contractor in Idaho who was participating in building a new subdivision. The man’s responsibilities included laying water and sewer pipes of various sizes, which meant that he was working alongside others who were cutting, sawing and abrading the pipes, which were marked with Certainteed’s logo. The pipes were made with asbestos cement, and as a result of him constantly having breathed in the dust, he was sickened with the rare and fatal form of cancer. He has indicated in his claim that there were not warnings provided about the dangers of asbestos, and no protective gear either.
Mark Lopez had almost no chance of avoiding being diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. When he was born, his father worked for Hillshire Brands Company’s sugar refinery where he was frequently exposed to asbestos, then carried the carcinogenic material home on his clothing. The family lived in employee housing in an area known as Betteravia where the company dumped asbestos near where he played as a child. He died at the age of 61 as a result of his constant childhood exposure. Now a California jury has awarded his family $13 million in damages for his medical expenses, his pain and suffering, and their loss.
Mark’s mesothelioma was a result of both primary environmental exposure to asbestos in the community where he grew up and secondary exposure to asbestos that his father unknowingly carried home on his work clothes, skin and hair. The community where they lived Betteravia, was home to over 60 families at one time. More than just a housing area, it also had a school, a post office, a general store, a gas station, a fire department, church and recreation center. Though the family moved away in the 1960s, his father continued working for the company for years after, and was one of many who were tasked with removing asbestos from the sugar refinery, then processing it for reuse as stucco. This went on for an almost 20-year period, from 1954 to 1972, when the scientific, industrial and medical community were all aware that asbestos was dangerous.
Today, Hillshire Brands is known as Tyson Foods, and the jury that was seated in California’s Superior Court said that because Lopez was “exposed to asbestos fibers emitted during the operation, maintenance, disposal and other activities at the Union Sugar Refinery, which caused friable asbestos fibers to contaminate the area surrounding the plant, including company housing,” the company was ordered to pay the family $11 million in non-economic damages and $1,958,461 for economic damages. It took the jury just 10 minutes to reach a verdict.
Mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related diseases are diagnosed all around the globe, and especially in the industrialized nations that used asbestos to build up their infrastructure. The United Kingdom sees approximately 2,500 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year, and many more instances of other conditions related to the use of the deadly mineral. In an attempt to bring attention to the dangers of asbestos and the need for those who worked with it in the past to monitor their health, an ex-British Rail worker asked that he be videotaped shortly before his death from asbestosis, and now those heart-wrenching images have been released.
Asbestosis is similar to mesothelioma in many ways. It is a chronic condition of lung scarring caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. Eddie Jowett died at the age of 75 after having worked with asbestos during the 1950s and 1960s, when he had worked as part of a factory team that fabricated prototype diesel cabs that were insulated with the hazardous material material. Neither he nor any of his colleagues were provided with any type of ventilators or masks to protect them from breathing in the fibers. They also were not informed that asbestos was dangerous, despite the fact that by that time many asbestos suppliers were well aware of this fact.
Another similarity between mesothelioma and asbestosis is the fact that the condition has a long latency period. Though he was a young man when he worked with the material, it was not until he was over 70 that he started having a hard time breathing. The asbestosis was quickly diagnosed, and changed his life. In his video, Mr. Jowett says, “I was a fit man that could do anything – doing any job that anybody asked me to do. Now I can’t do anything. I am now bedridden. I can’t go out walking. I can’t take my wife out. I can’t do anything.”
The company that he worked for was British Rail, which is now operated by the Department for Transport. That agency provided an out-of-court settlement to him, providing him with compensation for his damages just months before his death.
When administrators at California’s Sonoma State University were told that the campus’s Stevenson Hall was contaminated with asbestos, their first concern should have been about the risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Unfortunately, instead of taking action to protect faculty, staff and students, the organization chose to retaliate against the employee who reported the danger, subjecting him to a work environment that became so hostile that he eventually quit. Still, he made sure that the proper authorities knew about the problem by filing a lawsuit for harassment and violations of California’s Occupational and Health Administrations standards. He got his job back and was awarded both back pay and $387,000 in compensation, and the university was also required to pay $2.9 million in fines and compensation to those exposed to the deadly carcinogen.
Thomas Sargent knew that asbestos was the single cause of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, and after 24 years as an employee of the university, he took his job seriously. He was concerned when he noticed that one of the school’s original buildings, 3-story Stevenson Hall, was showing dangerous signs of aging. Ceiling and floor tiles that were made of asbestos were crumbling, exposing anybody in the area to dangerous fibers that could easily be inhaled. But when he went to his supervisors to report the problem, they took no action beyond making his work life miserable.
The penalties that the jury handed down included approximately $3,100 for each of the employees who have worked in the building between the time Sargent originally reported his concerns and the date of the jury’s decision, in hopes that they will use the money to monitor for signs of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Because the rare form of cancer does not begin to show symptoms for decades, they will need to be checked by medical professionals on a constant basis.
In addition to the damages and fines that the school has been told to pay, the decision to fight the charges and to refuse to address the asbestos situation resulted in them having to pay over $3.5 million in legal fees. Their short-sighted decision is much like the ones that asbestos companies made in the past when they put people’s lives at risks by continuing to use the inexpensive carcinogenic material instead of a more costly but safer alternative. In both situations, lives were put at stake and the decision ended up costing the organizations millions.
Malignant mesothelioma is a problem all around the world, but the countries that are facing the greatest numbers of people diagnosed with the disease today are those that used asbestos most frequently fifty years ago. This includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Australia. In some cases the people who have been diagnosed were exposed to asbestos when they were working with the material in factory settings; some worked in construction, using asbestos-contaminated materials to build infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings. In the case of one United Kingdom police officer, his exposure to the carcinogenic material came when he was investigating a deadly bombing in 1984.
The incident that led to Forensic Officer Jonathan Woods’ malignant mesothelioma was a famous hotel bombing that took place in Brighton in the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was having their annual meeting at the Grand Hotel, and party members were staying there overnight. The IRA bombed the hotel in an attempt to kill Thatcher and her cabinet: 5 people were killed and 34 were injured, and police from both the Sussex and Met forces were called to the scene. Officer Woods was on the scene, combing through asbestos-contaminated rubble for two weeks. Thirty-two years later he had died of mesothelioma.
It is not at all unusual for it to take such a long period of time to go by between asbestos exposure and a mesothelioma diagnosis and death. The rare and fatal form of cancer has a notoriously long latency period, and it is quite possible that there are others who were on the scene who may yet begin to show symptoms over the next twenty years. For this reason the police force sent out letters and notifications to all those who may have been exposed, asking them to contact them if they’d experienced any signs of illness. So far, Mr. Woods is the only one who responded: he died late last year. A settlement was paid by both police forces to his family.