Navy fears that illness of veterans is job-related Health agency will conduct a review of records

January 26, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Fearing that unsafe work conditions might have exposed thousands of deckhands to lethal dust clouds in the 1970s, the Navy has asked a federal health agency to conduct a major review of naval personnel records.

At issue is whether hundreds of sailors who have a lung disorder for which Navy doctors could find no cause may instead have a job-related illness. Such a determination could cost the Navy millions of dollars in damages.

The job in question involved grinding nonskid adhesive off the decks of aircraft carriers in preparation for resurfacing, sending clouds of tiny silica shards into the air. Although regulations in the 1970s required deckhands to wear masks, Navy officials acknowledge that most supervisors did not enforce the rule.

As Navy veterans around the country compare notes on their lung problems, service officials have agreed to investigate their claims. They say that what Navy doctors diagnosed as sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease with no known cause, may in fact be silicosis, a fatal lung disease caused by airborne silica.

In a letter last month Vice Adm. Donald F. Hagen, the Navy surgeon general, asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "to determine the relationship, if any, between the risk of silicosis and sarcoidosis, our active-duty members, and the Navy work environment in the early 1970s."

If the federal health agency finds that the Navy misdiagnosed the documented sarcoidosis cases, legal experts say, the Navy may have to pay millions of dollars in damages to the stricken sailors. Moreover, since the silicosis symptoms can take more than 20 years to develop, health officials say thousands of other Navy veterans may soon be seeking relief.

The Navy's unusual request for help from federal health experts stems from the efforts of Jerry Cochran, 39, who was medically discharged in 1975.

The Veterans Affairs Department recognized Mr. Cochran's illness as silicosis in March 1991, but so far the Navy has stuck to its original diagnosis. He helped found the Jerry Cochran Veterans Outreach Foundation, a nonprofit organization to help veterans suffering from silicosis or other related lung problems find proper medical attention, obtain their Navy records and process claims. The foundation has a toll-free number (800) 876-3901.

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