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Horrible toll could have been avoided

By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot, May 6, 2001

They came by the tens of thousands, called to arms in the shipyards of Hampton Roads to help build the armada that would keep the world safe for democracy.

They toiled in the bellies of great gray warships during and after World War II, wrapping mazes of pipes, engines, boilers and turbines with asbestos insulation. Fogs of asbestos dust often were so thick workers couldn't see each other.

They used no masks or respirators. No one told them they should.
At day's end, they wore the residue home, into their kitchens and living rooms, where the fine white powder invaded the lungs of their wives and children.

They didn't know it could kill them, but the asbestos industry and the government did.

Shipyard workers exposed to asbestos during World War II died at nearly the same rate as the men in uniform. And the asbestos exposure continued into the 1950s, '60s and '70s -- triggering the worst workplace tragedy in American history.

When the dying stops, it will have claimed some 100,000 shipyard workers and their family members, thousands of them in Hampton Roads.

Every 10 days, doctors diagnose someone here with a relatively rare form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. Its only known cause is asbestos. It occurs in Hampton Roads at seven times the national rate and kills with fearsome swiftness.

Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases have lengthy latency periods and will continue to sicken and kill for three more decades.

And the tragedy could have been avoided.

Industry and government officials knew before World War II that asbestos was hazardous but did little to warn or protect workers until the mid- and late 1970s.

For its part, the Navy issued wartime safety standards but failed to enforce them for more than three decades, even as increasingly lethal asbestos diseases were identified, even as workers became ill and died. The service violated its own ban on asbestos in new ship construction in the 1970s, and the Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth issued a gag order to its workers, forbidding anyone to talk to lawyers about asbestos disease.

The Navy has never conducted, and says it does not plan to conduct, a survey to determine the extent of the asbestos-disease problem among shipyard workers and sailors.

So far, more than 15,000 people, most of them shipyard workers and their family members, have filed lawsuits and legal claims in Hampton Roads for asbestos-related diseases that occurred on the job. Local victims have collected at least $800 million in damages. The ultimate payout likely will equal or surpass $1 billion. Lawyers will pocket about a third of that.

Staggered by lawsuits, 27 major companies that manufactured or sold asbestos products have gone bankrupt.

Almost all asbestos products have been removed from the workplace, but the avalanche of lawsuits has continued into the 21st century, sending new convulsions throughout financial markets, threatening to force even Lloyd's of London into insolvency.

And nowhere does the tragedy exact more suffering than in Hampton Roads, whose lifeblood long has been great seagoing vessels and the men and women who build them, repair them and serve aboard them.



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