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Decades of Denial and Deceit
Part 2: Dragging out reform

By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 8, 2001

Labor unions remained concerned through the early and mid-1970s that new federal asbestos exposure standards were too lax. Shipyard workers toiled in poorly ventilated vessels, often being exposed to levels significantly above what regulators had deemed safe.

The unions sought a standard of no more than 2 fibers per cubic centimeter of air on average during an eight-hour workday. OSHA insisted on a 5-fiber standard.

Even the 2-fiber standard the unions advocated was based on dubious science. A worker exposed under that standard would, in fact, inhale some 1 billion fibers during an eight-hour workday. A single inhaled fiber can cause cancer.

The unions took their fight to court. The asbestos industry -- which included private and Navy shipyards, some construction trades and the automobile brake and clutch businesses, among others -- argued that adopting the stronger standard would wreak economic havoc.

In 1976, OSHA lowered the standard to 2 fibers. In years to come, it would be revised downward to 0.1 fiber, one-fiftieth of the original level. That is the current standard.

As the asbestos wars played out in Washington, tradesmen at the Navy's Portsmouth yard continued installing and removing asbestos with minimal controls in the mid-1970s, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who worked there then.

Most of the ex-workers said they received no warnings from shipyard management about the dangers of asbestos before 1975 or 1976. And though shipyard officials made respirators available to tradesmen who worked with or near asbestos, their use was not required, ex-employees say.

Samuels, the former union and government health official, says shipyards and the Navy were too busy in their port cities with the machinations of war, too preoccupied by personnel issues, too worried about a shrinking fleet in the mid-1970s, to fret over asbestos safety.

The issue ``barely registered on the Navy's radar screen,'' he says. When budget requests for shipyard health and safety programs reached the Pentagon, ``eyes would simply glaze over,'' Samuels says.

Samuels recalls a phone call from a dying naval officer, a captain at the naval shipyard in Portsmouth. The officer supervised rip-out of insulation in the engine rooms of ships. Samuels remembers only his last name: Middleton.

For years, Middleton had inhaled asbestos dust. Now he was dying of mesothelioma. He told Samuels, at the time the top industrial official for organized labor in the United States, that the Navy had betrayed him.

``He told me about the information flow that had gone from the doctors to the environmental people to the operating officers,'' Samuels recalled in a recent interview. ``All along the chain of command.''

During World War II, ``people accepted the hazards,'' Samuels says. ``After the war, the Navy was stuck with what was left. . . . Sick and dying workers, sick and dying sailors on the ships.''

More than 20 years after banning asbestos in new-ship construction, the defense establishment continues to ignore the asbestos-disease problem, Samuels says. The federal government, he says, should have conducted nationwide medical studies to learn how many shipyard workers and sailors who served aboard those ships have died, and continue to die, of asbestos exposure.

But to undertake such a study -- or even to publicly acknowledge the results of private studies that have been conducted, showing high levels of asbestos disease -- ``would be to create problems of potential (workers') compensation on a massive scale,'' Samuels says.

In October 1977, Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's watchdog group, urged the Navy to screen naval shipyard workers who may have been exposed to asbestos and to presume that those who were ``significantly'' exposed should be considered disabled and entitled to government benefits.

``While new reports of asbestos-related disease explode like depth charges, the Department of Defense maintains that still more research is needed,'' Public Citizen said. ``If the victims of asbestos had instead been the victims of enemy bullets in wartime, the military would carefully count the bodies and compensate the victims and their families.''

The following July, the Navy bowed to public pressure and announced a medical surveillance program involving some 220,000 uniformed and civilian workers believed to be at risk from asbestos disease. The program was to include medical exams, interviews and questionnaires.

``Asbestos and cancer related to asbestos exposure are serious occupational health concerns of the Navy,'' the service said when announcing the program. ``This expanded preventive medicine program will provide for surveillance and early diagnosis of asbestos-related disease . . . as well as providing important data on the nature and extent of asbestos-related disease.''

There is no evidence that the Navy's program was ever carried out.

In 1978, the Navy admitted that it had violated its own ban on asbestos use in new ship construction. At least 41 ships containing asbestos insulation had been completed after 1973, when the ban went into effect, the service said. Seven were based in Norfolk: the carriers Nimitz and Eisenhower, amphibious ship Saipan and destroyers Spruance, Peterson, Arthur W. Radford and Caron.

A Navy spokesman, Lt. James Bullock, said at the time that the Navy had not ordered elimination of all asbestos because of cost concerns.

``There is no hazard when asbestos is in place,'' only when it is being installed or removed and asbestos dust gets in the air, Bullock said.

By 1978, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and others had finally stopped using asbestos-laden insulation. The process of removing those products had begun. Shipyard officials returned unopened containers of insulation to manufacturers, and opened packages of insulation were soaked with water to deter dust release and taken to a designated landfill for burial. The employees who performed those duties wore special full-body suits and respirators.

Workers clad in similar protective gear began the final phase in the cycle of labor for the men and women in the dusty trades: asbestos abatement.

The years of corporate deceit bred by greed, and of government inaction bred by denial, had ended. Only now would the magnitude of the tragedy they had wrought become apparent.



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