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Asbestos News

The Toll: 9,000 Sick or Dead
Part 1: ''A hidden time bomb''

By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot, May 9, 2001

In 1973, two men on two continents offered similar visions of an apocalyptic future.

On Feb. 23, Dr. Irving Selikoff, testifying before a congressional subcommittee, predicted that asbestos disease would kill 1 million American workers by the year 2000.

Selikoff, director of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Environmental Sciences Laboratory in New York, had been studying the effects of occupational asbestos since the 1950s. He was disturbed by what his research showed, especially in asbestos mining and in shipyards.

One study turned up an alarming statistic: Asbestos insulation workers, including those who worked in the shipyards of Hampton Roads, were dying of an asbestos-related cancer called mesothelioma at a rate 344 times higher than the general population.

Selikoff described the lethal dust of the fibrous mineral as ``a hidden time bomb.''

Eight months later, two executives with Lloyd's of London, the famed insurance market, were golfing on a course south of London. One of the men, Roger Bradley, would later testify about what his colleague, Ralph Rokeby-Johnson, had said on that day in October 1973.

Rokeby-Johnson had predicted that the asbestos-disease crisis in America would unleash an avalanche of lawsuits. It would be unlike anything Lloyd's had ever seen, he told Bradley.

``Asbestosis is going to change the wealth of nations,'' Rokeby-Johnson pronounced darkly. ``It will bankrupt Lloyd's of London, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.''

He, like Selikoff, used the time-bomb analogy:

``The time bombs are the young (asbestos) victims who will gradually develop lung disease. When they die, the lawyers are going to have a field day.''

While Selikoff's perspective was that of a medical researcher, Rokeby-Johnson took a different view. He peered into the future and saw the financial crisis that asbestos disease would create once the lawyers got involved.

The pathologist and the actuarial expert agreed that an epidemic of asbestos disease had been unleashed.. The scope of that epidemic has been startling. Between 1980 and 1995, an estimated 149,350 people in the United States died of occupational asbestos disease. That number surpassed the combined total of all other workplace injuries and illnesses for that period: 140,365.

One of the epicenters of the asbestos tragedy has been Hampton Roads, where thousands of tons of asbestos was used in building and overhauling tens of thousands of ships.

For more than 20 years, Hampton Roads has had a lung-cancer death rate significantly higher than the national average. In 1978, the National Cancer Institute designated Hampton Roads as one of 15 regions in the nation where asbestos diseases were most likely to occur, based on elevated lung-cancer rates.

Hampton Roads also is a hot spot for asbestosis deaths. From 1987 to 1996, Virginia ranked seventh among the 50 states in the number of deaths caused by asbestosis, and more than two-thirds of those deaths occurred in Southeastern Virginia. Asbestosis is more pervasive but less lethal than cancer.

But the deadliest asbestos disease is mesothelioma, which is cancer of the lining of the lung. It almost always kills, often within months of diagnosis.