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
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
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
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.