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Asbestos News

The Toll: 9,000 Sick or Dead
Part 2: The cancer connection

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

At about the time Selikoff delivered his prophecy of doom to Congress, the phone rang in Betty Knapp's office at Norfolk's DePaul Hospital.

As the hospital's ``cancer registrar,'' Knapp collected data on cancer types and frequencies and reported them to the state. The caller was a state Health Department official. She said that the numbers Knapp had sent her seemed peculiar.

She told Knapp the data from Hampton Roads showed an unusually high number, or ``cluster,'' of cases of a relatively rare cancer called mesothelioma.

The woman wanted to know if Knapp had any theories about what was happening. Knapp said she could only guess, but she supposed it might have something to do with the region's huge shipbuilding industry.

The Health Department inquisitor and Betty Knapp were both right. Something was happening in Hampton Roads, and it was happening at the shipyards.

Between 1972 and 1978, a medical research team observed, there were 72 cases of mesothelioma in Hampton Roads, or 12 per year. That was four times higher than the national rate. The numbers piqued the researchers' interest and prompted a detailed study.

The results were published in the November 1980 issue of the journal Cancer Research. Interviews with the victims, most of whom were white males, revealed that 77 percent had worked in shipyards. The researchers also interviewed five of the six female mesothelioma victims and learned that four were wives of shipyard workers.

Their conclusion: Shipyard employment was responsible for the elevated rate of the cancer in the seaport cities of Southeastern Virginia.

``Since stricter controls have been instituted to reduce asbestos exposure in shipyards, mesothelioma incidence should eventually decline in coastal areas of the country such as Tidewater,'' the authors concluded.

But they added this ominous qualifier: ``However, the long latent period of asbestos-induced mesothelioma is a matter of concern, and it seems likely that the full impact of postwar exposures has not yet been seen.''

In fact, mesothelioma rates continued to rise. Before his death in 1992, Selikoff predicted that mesothelioma cases would peak at 3,060 in the year 2002.

Today, Hampton Roads is one of the nation's hot spots for the disease. Consider that:

Between 1982 and 2000, 632 mesothelioma cases were diagnosed locally, about seven times the national rate. During those years, about one of every 26 mesothelioma cases nationwide occurred in Hampton Roads.

The disease claims nearly one victim every 10 days in Hampton Roads.
Victims include people like Rebecca Martin, whose husband, Charles, a Navy enlistee who sometimes worked on ships, wore asbestos dust home on his clothes many years ago, not knowing that it could kill. Rebecca Martin died in September, seven months shy of the couple's 50th anniversary.

They include people like William R. Powell, a highly paid Visa International executive who never worked in a shipyard, but whose father did, during and after World War II, in Portsmouth. Powell, 51, died in his Virginia Beach home March 13 after waging a battle against the disease that lasted nearly four years.

The case of William L. Forbes illustrates two alarming characteristics of mesothelioma: The onset of the disease sometimes does not occur until several decades after exposure, and even a minimal contact can sow the seeds of malignancy.

Forbes' brief exposure occurred while, as a college student, he worked as a summer laborer in Norfolk shipyards in 1949 and 1950. He was not diagnosed with the disease until 1998, three years after retiring as a Chesapeake Circuit judge. He died later that year.

A roll call of mesothelioma victims has appeared on newspaper obituary pages through the years.

Feb. 11, 1977: James W. Vaughn, 49, of Norfolk, former Navy boiler tender.

June 4, 1986: Andrew O. Stampley Jr., 68, of Chesapeake, retired Navy electrician.

Dec. 26, 1994: Elliott Rosenbaum, 74, Navy veteran, former shipyard worker.

Aug. 16, 1995: Virgel William Gunter Jr., 74, of Portsmouth, retired shipyard foreman.

Nov. 11, 1996: Edgar W. ``Eddy'' Dunagan, 54, of Virginia Beach, retired civil service worker, avid hunter, camper and fisherman.

Nov. 29, 1999: Ralph Paul Robinson, 72; had been elected sheriff in Perquimans County, N.C., in November 1998.

Jan. 2, 2000: Retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., former chief of naval operations, U.S. Navy.