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A half-million vets potentially exposed

Last month’s article was more personal than previous submissions and it appears that I have found a subject that resonates with more than just me. For those of you who may have missed last month’s piece it dealt with asbestos exposure and the potential long term effects of that exposure. Comments have been posted on the RJ website and I received a personal email from another reader. Thanks to all for your words.

It seems that many—if not all—navy veterans, shipyard workers, miners, factory employees and their families that were even close to asbestos products between the 1930s and the mid-1970s have a high likelihood of coming down with either mesothelioma or asbestosis. That must mean that there are tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of possible victims of this widely used material. Industry’s and government’s response over the past four decades to this health risk has been marginal at best. As a prime example of what I mean by a marginal response is the following. In 1989 the EPA instituted a ban on all new products containing asbestos. They proposed no such ban on existing uses. The industry took the EPA to court and in 1991 a Federal District Court overturned that ruling. The rationale behind that decision are technical and not directly related to the potential health hazard resulting from exposure to asbestos.

Another facet on this subject comes from Congress. Since 1977 various bills have been introduced to establish a national trust fund to cover all who are afflicted individuals. This was done as an attempt to make right what some have called “the worst industrial accident in U. S. history.” This national trust fund would have negated the need for individual and class action law suits against the manufacturers and mining companies but guess what? Not any of the many proposed bills were ever passed in either house. One can only wonder at what possible influence the legal profession had in this lack of legislative action. As I wrote in the previous article it was a phone call from an attorney in Illinois that led to that piece. I suspect that there may be a class action suit in the making here with hundreds of billable hours involved. But then again I’m somewhat jaded and cynical when it comes to the majority of lawyers.

There is another facet to the proposed national trust solution to this problem and that is simply, time. Assuming that Congress passes something like the “FAIR” (Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution) proposed by Senator Hatch a couple of years ago we would be faced with a HUGE backlog of claims. Current estimates put the number of potentially exposed individuals at 500,000. This would mean months of delays while the claims were being processed. And, for those afflicted with either mesothelioma or asbestosis, time is something that is in very short supply. As I wrote previously mesothelioma is sneaky and seldom presents itself until it is well advanced. By the time it is identified the range of options for treatment are very limited and most of those options are purely palliative.

As a result of this industry and governmental inaction we have at this moment no national trust fund and no ban on products containing asbestos. Now don’t get me wrong. There are numerous regulations and procedures at the federal and state level on the use, removal and processing of asbestos. There is, however, no outright ban of its use at this time at any level. As of January 2005 the European Union has banned all use of asbestos. I would humbly suggest that a similar ban be implemented in the USA quickly. It would seem that our government has dawdled sufficiently. After all, asbestos has been a known carcinogen for over 35 years.

Asbestosis and mesothelioma are equal opportunity health hazards. They can be contracted simply by living with someone who has been exposed to asbestos at work or by living ‘downwind’ of a plant manufacturing products that utilize asbestos. The email I received stated that the sender’s mother had died of mesothelioma after working in a manufacturing plant during WWII. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people simply living in the vicinity of asbestos mining operations can and have gotten sick.

Which brings me to something that is more in keeping with veterans' interests. As of this writing the VA has yet to recognize that mesothelioma is a ‘service-related’ disorder. I find this strange simply because it has been known for well over thirty years that asbestos was a bad thing to inhale. Exposure to ‘Agent Orange’ while serving in Viet Nam and exposure to some specific chemical agents during the first Gulf War have already qualified as ‘service-related’ illnesses or diseases in a much shorter time span.

Why, one could ask, has asbestos exposure been neglected? Who knows? Maybe the numbers involved are just too big. Maybe, after being short-charged budget-wise for so many years under previous administrations, the VA is still trying to get its head above water with the stuff that they have to deal with from more recent conflicts. I do believe that a lot of the problems facing both the VA and our veterans’ communities have been exacerbated by short-sighted fiscal and budgetary policies over much of the previous three decades. A wise man once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ No individual or governmental entity—at any level—can spend like the proverbial ‘drunken sailor’ and reduce income at the same time. For that is the path to insurmountable debt and financial ruination.

Until next month—when I hope to have more information on topics related to mesothelioma and some ways to apply for available compensation—I’ll close this up. Our local Bonner County Veterans Assistance Officer, Don Carr (208-255-5291) probably knows more about this than I do. I readily admit that I am somewhat disappointed with the status of both regulation and legislation on this subject but as Chief Dan George once said, “We shall endeavor to persevere.”

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Author info

Gil  Beyer Gil Beyer A 21 year Navy veteran, lived in Bonner County for over 30 years, Past Commander of the Priest River DAV Chapter and admitted news junkie.

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veterans, agent orange, asbestos, mesothelioma

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