Man who scraped decks of carriers fights Navy over lung disease

September 27, 1992|By New York Times News Service

ALBANY, Ga. -- Slowly, very slowly, Jerry Cochran is suffocating.

Mr. Cochran, a 39-year-old former sailor, has a fatal lung disease that doctors say he contracted from tiny silica shards inhaled while he was grinding non-skid adhesive material off the decks of an aircraft carrier to prepare it for resurfacing.

Since leaving the Navy with a medical discharge in 1975, life's daily routine has been difficult for Mr. Cochran, a short, heavyset man. Walking a city block or climbing a flight of stairs leaves him gasping for breath.

At night, he wears an oxygen mask that pumps air into lungs that will otherwise quit while he sleeps.

After two decades of exhaustive efforts to overcome a Navy medical bureaucracy that initially accused him of malingering and then diagnosed him with sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease with no known cause, Mr. Cochran has drawn the attention of federal health authorities whobelieve he actually has silicosis, another fatal lung disease caused by exposure to airborne silica.

Fearing that scores of other sailors might have been exposed to lethal silica dust clouds, the health officials want to conduct a full-blown study, but Navy officials have so far stalled.

"If Cochran has silicosis, there's a good chance his co-workers may have been similarly exposed," said Dr. Jack Parker, a senior respiratory disease specialist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control in Morgantown, W.Va.

Not only has the Navy resisted contacting Mr. Cochran's former shipmates, it has not acknowledged that he is suffering from silicosis.

Navy officials agreed to submit answers to written questions for this article.

"From an industrial hygiene perspective, it is considered highly unlikely that the scenario described by Cochran would expose him to the dose of silica necessary to cause a progressive pulmonary disease 20 years later with no obvious intervening exposure," Dr. Glenn H. Randall, scientific director of the Navy Environmental Health Center in Norfolk, Va., said in a statement.

Federal and private physicians disagree, saying it is very plausible that Mr. Cochran contracted the disease aboard his ship from a single concentrated exposure.

Despite the Navy's contention that searching 20-year-old records would be costly and time-consuming, when asked for this article if the service would be willing to conduct an epidemiological study, Dr. Randall responded: "There is no reason why a cooperative Navy/NIOSH study of a cluster of occupational illnesses could not be undertaken and is encouraged."

While the Navy disputes Mr. Cochran's diagnosis, it began assigning military industrial-hygiene officers to aircraft carriers in And last year, it requested all non-skid manufacturers to remove crystalline silica from their products because it had been found to be carcinogenic.

Mr. Cochran joined the Navy in 1972 to lift himself out of the poverty of southern Georgia. He was assigned to the carrier Independence in Portsmouth, Va., and one of his first tasks was to scrape the worn non-skid material off the hangar deck.

In the hot, poorly ventilated hangar, sailors without masks or respirators pushed pneumatic-powered grinders that cracked the non-skid material into pieces, kicking up clouds of dust, Mr. Cochran said.

After five months of the deck-grinding duty, he collapsed while playing basketball. A long series of Navy examinations followed and he was medically discharged in 1975.

Dissatisfied with the Navy's diagnosis, Mr. Cochran, a high school dropout, read medical texts to learn about respiratory illnesses so he could challenge the Navy's findings.

The turning point came five years ago when he found a sympathetic physician at the Veterans Affairs Department, Dr. Leslie C. Watters.

Dr. Watters became an influential voice in persuading federal authorities to diagnose the silicosis, a work-related disease that afflicts 2 million Americans, and to call for a wide-ranging search for other affected sailors for an epidemiological study.

"I feel like it's my responsibility to restore some dignity to those others who are dying," said Mr. Cochran, straining in a raspy voice to make his point.

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