San Diego Union Tribune

March 15, 2004

Study blaming Navy ships for asbestos deaths


WASHINGTON San Diego County has had the eighth-highest number of asbestos-related deaths in the country, according to a new report by an environmental group.

The report, which ranks Los Angeles County as No. 1 in asbestos-linked deaths nationally, comes at a time when President Bush is trying to rein in lawsuits that seek huge damage awards for asbestos-related diseases.

Analysts at the Environmental Working Group, which released the study earlier this month, primarily blame old Navy ships for the high number of deaths in San Diego. San Diego has a number of private shipyards that modify, maintain and repair Navy ships.

Fred Lash, a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the command is "developing the appropriate responses" to the study.

Asbestos is a fibrous material used as insulation and fireproofing. Older vessels owned by the Navy and the Maritime Administration used large amounts of asbestos, primarily for insulation. When inhaled, asbestos fibers can cause breathing problems, including asbestosis, which causes the lungs to harden, and mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lung lining.

The Asbestos Alliance, which represents the industry, called the report "inaccurate and misleading," and noted that it was paid for in part by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which is battling efforts in Congress to limit class-action lawsuits by asbestos victims.

From 1979 to 2001, there were as many as 526 deaths in San Diego County related to asbestos, reported the group, whose data comes from death certificates filed with the National Center for Health Statistics at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Los Angeles County, there were as many as 1,227 such deaths.

While it is impossible to say how all the victims were exposed to asbestos, a group spokesman said the likely culprits in Southern California were Navy shipyards and Los Angeles manufacturing plants that made insulation out of asbestos materials.

In 1986, the San Diego County Hazardous Waste Management Plan Project found that Southwest Marine shipyard, which maintains and repairs Navy ships, was among the area's top sources of hazardous waste, which primarily included oily water, oil and asbestos.

Also in the 1980s, labor unions complained that working conditions at San Diego's National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. were made hazardous by the presence of asbestos. A team of federal safety inspectors declined to investigate the claim.

Last year, a federal court ordered W.R. Grace & Co. to pay $55 million to clean its contaminated former vermiculite plant near Libby, Mont., which produced asbestos that was shipped to manufacturing plants across the country, including Los Angeles. Federal testing showed that thousands of people in Libby had clinical signs of asbestos diseases.

Though widespread use of asbestos has waned as the public learned of its hazards, it is still used in some products, such as car brakes, blow dryers and roof sealants. Vermiculite insulation still exists in about 35 million homes, said Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who has tried to ban all asbestos manufacturing in the country.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says almost 60 U.S. companies have filed for bankruptcy because of asbestos claims, putting 60,000 people out of work. The American Bar Association says many asbestos-related lawsuits are brought by people who may have been exposed to asbestos, but do not yet have asbestos-related cancer and are not medically impaired.

"If that weren't bad enough, these closings (of companies) have caused a devastating trickle-down impact on towns and businesses all across America," chamber President Thomas Donohue said. "This is one more reason why Congress must act quickly to fix this problem."

Legislation by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would create a $108 billion-plus government trust fund fed by insurance companies and companies that produced and used asbestos to which victims could apply for relief instead of suing. Larger companies would save billions by avoiding future lawsuits. Among the companies that would benefit from Hatch's plan is Halliburton, the oil-services company of which Vice President Dick Cheney was once chairman.

Critics say that under the plan, victims would not get what they need to pay medical bills and provide for their families while they are unable to work.