Springfield State Journal Register

March 8, 2004

Deaths from asbestos lead to push for ban

By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Lloyd Diseron of Plymouth had been sick off and on for about a year with a variety of symptoms before a lung specialist in Springfield diagnosed him with an asbestos-related disease in November 1999.

He died two months later at age 50.

His wife, Janice, is suing a number of the manufacturers of asbestos products he used decades ago in the Navy.

She wants Congress to ban remaining asbestos products on the market today. She also hopes that more people who, like her husband, were unwittingly exposed to asbestos can be made aware of the risk and seek treatment earlier.

"If he had known earlier, he certainly would have had a better chance," Janice Diseron said.

Illinois has the seventh-highest number of asbestos-related deaths among the 50 states, with as many as 2,607 people dying of such illnesses from 1979 to 2001, and 2,528 have gone to court seeking compensation, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group. The group for the first time compiled government mortality statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The greatest number of asbestos-linked deaths occurred in heavy manufacturing areas such as Cook County, which with 1,051 such deaths ranked second highest of all the counties in the nation.

In Sangamon County, 37 people are thought to have died of asbestos-related disease, factoring in a jump in figures when the government changed its tracking system.

The report comes at a time when President Bush is trying to rein in lawsuits that seek huge damages for asbestos and other industry-related diseases. It was funded in part by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which opposes the effort.

Nationwide, more than 43,000 Americans have died from asbestos over the 22-year period, the group found. It predicts 100,000 Americans will die of asbestos-related diseases over the next decade.

The Senate is expected to take up legislation later this month that would create a $108 billion-plus government trust fund, financed by asbestos manufacturers and insurance companies, to provide compensation for asbestos victims without going to court.

Critics say it would unfairly limit the number of people who could file claims. But supporters argue it's needed to keep more companies from filing for bankruptcy.

"Asbestos is not a tort reform issue or a bankruptcy issue, it is a public health issue of staggering proportions," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of Environmental Working Group, contending the legislation would allow wealthy companies to save billions.

"As the Congress considers a national trust fund, the focus of that debate must be on how to deliver the fullest measure of assistance to all injured individuals and the families of people killed or injured by asbestos, people who are suffering today simply because they went to work every day, lived with someone who worked with asbestos and brought it home with them or lived near an asbestos-products manufacturing plant," Wiles said.

More than 600,000 people have filed claims and more than 8,400 companies have been named as defendants in asbestos litigation, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who authored the bill to limit lawsuits.

"Scores of companies with almost no connection to the problem have had to file for bankruptcy, and hundreds of others live under constant threat of insolvency from litigation," Hatch said this week on the Senate floor.

To date, about 70 companies have filed for bankruptcy as a result of asbestos lawsuits, according to Hatch and others. Among the companies that would benefit from the Hatch plan is Halliburton Corp., which Vice President Dick Cheney previously ran as chairman.

Hatch called the lawsuits a "gravy train" for trial lawyers.

The Asbestos Alliance, a coalition of companies and trade associations backing the Hatch bill, called the EWG study "inaccurate and misleading," noting its funding by trial lawyers.

But Wiles said the group paid for less than half of the study's cost and didn't influence the results.

"We reported government mortality statistics. ... The numbers speak for themselves," Wiles said.

Asbestos is a fibrous material still used in insulation, roofing and flooring products. When inhaled, the fibers can cause breathing problems, including asbestosis, scar tissue in the lungs and mesothelioma, a usually fatal cancer of the lung lining. While its use declined in the mid-1970s when its dangers became well-known, vermiculate insulation still exists in some 35 million homes, according to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has tried unsuccessfully for three years to ban asbestos.

Because the symptoms may not appear until decades after someone has been exposed, many more people may yet be diagnosed with asbestos-related disease, said Dr. Richard Lemon, a retired assistant surgeon general who joined Wiles this week in calling for a total ban of asbestos.

"I don't think we've reached our peak," Lemon said.