Asbestos cloud in hell awaits guilty W.R. Grace officials

January 16, 2002|By Jay Hancock

THE NUMBER of Dr. Alan Whitehouse's patients who are sick, dying or dead of asbestos disease passed 450 last year. He expects the list to grow.

"A lot of abnormal X-rays turned up in a screening we had last fall," he said on the phone yesterday. "There has been ongoing exposure - even since the 1980s there has been ongoing exposure - and those people haven't had any time to manifest any symptoms."

Whitehouse is a lung specialist in Spokane, Wash. Almost all his asbestos patients come from Libby, Mont., a small mining town two hours over the mountains.

In 1980 Whitehouse discerned a pattern of symptoms among men who worked in the Libby vermiculite pit owned by W.R. Grace & Co., which has been based in Columbia in recent years.

The men would complain that they couldn't breathe deeply, that a walk to the kitchen would leave them as winded as a sprinter after a hard race. Even two decades ago the diagnosis wasn't hard: It was asbestosis, a wasting industrial disease that turned vigorous workers into wheezing invalids.

For business managers who see government regulators as bureaucratic nitpickers who never met a payroll or beat a sales quota, the case of W.R. Grace and Libby, Mont., is a rejoinder.

Yes, safety and environmental inspectors often behave in ways that make the line, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you," funny or enraging. But this country's half-century asbestos outrage shows that enlightened self-interest, the market's invisible hand and the system of legal redress for injury are not enough to shield citizens and workers.

You need regulators to blow the whistle while the foul is occurring, if they can. Of course, not even the government prevented abuses by Grace and the other asbestos villains, but the damage would have been much greater without public watchdogs.

Libby began to get sick in a significant way in the 1970s, and even then Grace knew that its vermiculite ore contained significant amounts of asbestos and knew that it was harming workers.

But the company kept the mine open until 1990, a date so far past the full, horrifying recognition of asbestos' danger that it would stretch the imagination if not for the fact that Canada and Russia continue to mine and export asbestos with gusto today.

Vermiculite looks like mica and puffs up like popcorn when you heat it. People use it for house insulation and for leavening garden and potting soil.

Libby's vermiculite, laced with asbestos by a factor of up to 25 percent, blanketed the town of 2,000, billowing from both the mine and from a downtown plant where the ore was treated.

It contaminated the area around the plant and connecting rail lines. Everybody used it in their gardens and attics. It was regularly worked into the soil on the schools track and baseball field.

"The children played in piles of vermiculite for many years," Whitehouse testified to Congress last summer. "They would also jump from ropes into large piles of vermiculite similar to what you did when you jumped in leaf piles when you were a child."

About a fourth of his asbestos patients, Whitehouse says, never worked for Grace or shared a house with a Grace employee, where asbestos would come home on the worker's clothes. They got sick because they lived in Libby.

Asbestos maims and kills when its wiry, barely visible fibers lodge in the lungs and then spend decades ripping and abrading the delicate membranes.

The first symptom of asbestosis often is an encrusting of the pulmonary lining "like an orange peel around an orange," said Whitehouse. Scar tissue builds, keeping the air sacs from exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Asbestosis victims often die of suffocation. Many get lung cancer.

Grace says it accepts blame for what happened to Libby and is prepared to pay appropriate reparations and treatment costs. But Grace does not admit it behaved irresponsibly.

"The exposures were below what at that time was considered safe by all the regulatory authorities," says company spokesman William Corcoran.

Grace knew asbestos was dangerous but not how dangerous, Corcoran says. It kept implementing safety technologies - respirators, dust-settling water - only to learn much later that they were not enough.

The nicest thing to be said about Grace is that the company should have paid less attention to counting airborne particles and more attention to common sense. Everybody knew asbestos was a killer by 1980. There were already more than 10,000 lawsuits.

In September 1985 Grace executives met in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss risks of the vermiculite trade. An internal memo, later divulged in litigation, listed them: "impairment of reputation, lawsuits, increases in the cost to borrow money, adverse impact on the value of Grace stock and inability to purchase product liability insurance." No mention of dead and crippled workers.

Grace's reputation and stock were impaired, all right. The company entered bankruptcy proceedings last year and, like other asbestos firms, will become a host organism to feed the litigation machine.

Today's W.R. Grace is largely a different organization than the one that raped Libby. The bosses have changed as well as many of the employees, and probably most of the shareholders. It does quite well in non-vermiculite businesses, including its Davison Chemicals unit in Baltimore.

But under American legal rules, the company, not the executives and owners of decades ago, receives the brunt of blame and lawsuits from Libby. Even so, somewhere inside Grace in the 1970s, there must have been people who knew what was happening and did nothing.

For them there is a special rack in hell, where gray clouds of mineral dust obscure the brimstone, and oxygen is in scarce supply.

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