New Year Brings Drug to Australian Meso Sufferers

Starting January 1st, 2008, Australians who are suffering from the asbestos-related cancer known as mesothelioma will be able to affordably access the drug Alimta, which will officially become one of the country’s government subsidized medications.

As of the first day of the new year, Alimta – the only treatment available specifically for this aggressive cancer of the lung or stomach lining – will be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Previously, those who wanted to access the drug had to pay large amounts from their own pockets.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon said the listing of Alimta was an important announcement that followed the “tireless campaigning” of Bernie Banton, who died of mesothelioma in November at age 61.

“Bernie was a great Australian hero and it is due to his efforts that many people will understand the significance of this decision,” she said.
An article in the Australian notes that about 600 Australians each year are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Medical studies indicate that by the year 2020, approximately 18,000 individuals will have become victims of this dreaded disease, which takes anywhere from 20 – 50 years to manifest itself and usually kills its victims within a year of diagnosis. With drugs like Alimta, however, mesothelioma patients are living slightly longer and more comfortably while fighting the disease.

Prior to the decision to list the drug on the PBS, those who could afford it were paying $20,000 or more for six treatments. The exorbitant price kept sufferers – most of whom are blue-collar workers – from being able to obtain the drug. With the new plan, meso patients will pay a maximum of $31.30 for each prescription and some will pay as little as $5 per dose.

Hospital Committed Serious Asbestos Violations

An Associated Press article reports that a Kansas City, Missouri hospital is facing a large fine for what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is referring to as “serious” and “willful” asbestos violations.

According to the AP articled, Research Medical Center has 15 days to respond to OSHA’s findings and can either pay the $84,000 fine, negotiate for a lower fine, or dispute the administration’s findings.

Earlier this week, officials at Research Medical Center informed 85 of its employees that they had “potentially” been exposed to asbestos. According to hospital spokesperson Linda Morris Shaffer, none of the employees have received medical examinations in response to the potential exposure.

The article also notes that it is unclear whether the exposure extended to patients and visitors because the OSHA complaint only involves employees and the conditions in which they work.

“We can’t go where there are patients, and we didn’t want to disturb patients,” said Barbara Theriot, OSHA area director.

Shaffer added that hospital officials are trying to determine what else needs to be addressed concerning asbestos.

According to the OSHA report, the material containing asbestos was found in a vinyl wall covering with gray felt backing. The material crumbles easily, which allows the asbestos fibers to become easily airborne.

The OSHA report says that the asbestos is found in hallways, a boiler room, an X-ray control room and several other places throughout the hospital. According to the report, hospital officials knew the amount and location of the asbestos dating back to at least September 2006.

The report says the workers exposed included operating engineers who worked in the boiler room and a housekeeper and floor technician who cleaned patient-care areas. Theriot said OSHA is looking into whether construction workers who were renovating the hospital’s fourth floor were exposed.

Florida DEP Investigating Asbestos Violations

Workers who are employed by a Lee County, Florida construction company say they were made to handle dangerous asbestos without protective gear and were ordered to illegally dump the material at a nearby lake.

According to an article in the Naples Daily News, employees and former employees of Posen Construction made sworn statements to county officials that they were threatened with losing their jobs if they refused to handle the dangerous material.

“If we question the instructions, there are plenty of people looking for truck driving jobs,” said truck driver Virginia Brown in a sworn statement taken in November.

Brown heard that from crew leader Linda Darnall, she said, who swore she got the instruction from her boss, Michael Schook.

“They’ve harassed the hell out of me,” said Darnall, who claimed she was terminated after she complained and went for lung X-rays and tests. “People are sick. People are being harassed. People are being fired. I am livid.”

Other Posen workers said they were instructed to cut up the asbestos pipe with saws and then crush them, releasing airborne fibers.

“There were lots of dust particles in the air,” said Jonathan Herman.

The workers maintain that they were offered no protective gear while dealing with the toxic material. Truck drivers who worked for Posen Construction claim they were ordered to dump the asbestos debris at a newly-created lake south of the new Alico Road near Highway 41, and that equipment operators then pushed the asbestos into the lake.

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials confirmed that they are investigating the situation at this time. Warning letters were sent to Posen, Lee County and the Florida DOT before Christmas advising of possible violations of Clean Air Act laws and other laws governing the handling and disposal of asbestos.

“We have investigated and we have sent the warning letter,” DEP spokeswoman Audrey Wright said. “They have replied and asked for a meeting after the holidays.”

Number of Class Action Asbestos Suits Rises

In the Madison County, Illinois courts, individual and class action asbestos suits are common, and according to an article in the Belleville News-Democrat, the number of suits rose again this year.

Individual suits increased by about 33 percent over the number of such suits filed in 2006. Last year, 325 were filed; this year the number was 444. The number of class actions filed in 2007 stood at seven last week, which was up significantly from the three filed in 2006.

However, experts say that the number of asbestos suits nationwide continue to decrease even though this year saw a slight upward trend.

“The numbers don’t always tell the whole story,” said Ed Murnane, president of the pro-business Illinois Civil Justice League. “The fact is that any attorney can file a suit, but it is the court that decides what it is going to do with that suit.”

The article points out that in 2005, President George W. Bush visited Madison County to promote a new law that restricts where plaintiff lawyers can file class action suits. Such suits lump together a group of people with similar claims and can easily lead to multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements.

Murnane said the biggest change happening in Madison County is the fact that the court is trying to eliminate litigation that doesn’t belong in that county. This Illinois county has long been a dumping ground for asbestos suits.

Last week, Madison and St. Clair Counties, both in Illinois, fell off the list of “judicial hellholes”, according to the American Tort Reform Association. Its annual list contains “court venues deemed hostile to corporate defendants and overly sympathetic to plaintiff attorneys.”

Last year, the group ranked Madison and St. Clair counties Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, as “hellholes.” The year before, it ranked them Nos. 4 and 5; and in 2004, Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, according to the article.

Experts credit the removal of the counties from the list of “hellholes” to the recent formation of a “plural registry”, which demands that individuals place their name on said list as soon as they gain first knowledge of an asbestos-related illness, as required by statute.

“That’s where most filings are,” said attorney Kevin Conway, former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. “We’re really only going to let the most seriously hurt on the active docket.”

Australian Soldiers Face Asbestos Risk

Because Australia’s Defense Force still uses asbestos in much of its equipment, soldiers from that country remain at fairly high risk for health complications from asbestos exposure.

According to health groups and trade unions in Australia, who were quoted in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, “the army, navy, and the air force will continue to use asbestos in hundreds of thousands of items of equipment – such as vehicle brake linings, engine gaskets and door seals – until the end of the decade after winning a three-year extension to their exemption.”

The exemption means another “10, 20, 30, who knows how many people” are likely to contract an asbestos-related disease, the executive director of Asbestos Diseases Victoria, Leigh Hubbard, said yesterday.

In 2001, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission prohibited the use of asbestos in workplaces beginning on January 1, 2004. But the military was exempt from those rules. While several industries received three year extensions that ended this year, the Defense Force is the only one that got another extension, which will last until December 31, 2010.

The article points out that the navy uses asbestos in more than 130,000 equipment parts, including in the Orion P3 aircraft and F1-11 fighter jets, which have asbestos in gaskets, brake linings, seals and fire barriers. Some army helicopters also still contain asbestos.

The assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Geoff Fary, said almost every other industry in Australia had replaced its asbestos parts.

“We opposed the three-year extension because we believe there is no compelling evidence to support Defense’s claim that they’ve been unable to meet the deadline that virtually all of the rest of Australian industry has been able to meet.

“Alternative parts which don’t contain asbestos are available, and almost all other industries are using them.” The Government’s own documents said there was no safe level of asbestos exposure, Mr. Fary explained.

“This is awful, awful stuff. Basically we believe anyone – service people, civilian workers, contractors – exposed to these parts, there is a potential risk to their health.

“We’ve seen recently the tragic death of Bernie Banton, and it is known that exposure only needs to be once and brief for serious health problems to develop. The defense forces, as with all industry, should be moving heaven and earth to remove asbestos where they can, and we find it devastating that that’s not being done.”

Firefighters Fear Asbestos Exposure

New Haven, Connecticut city officials are concerned that several of their firefighters may have been exposed to asbestos while fighting a fire at a large defunct department store earlier this month.

According to an article in Newsday, about 60 city firefighters fought the blaze at the old Kresge department store on December 12th. The smoke was thick and acrid and most of the firefighters wore air packs that only last about 30 minutes. Many of them fought the fire for hours.

Two of a dozen samples of debris sent to the state Department of Public Health were positive for asbestos, said Andy Rizzo, the head of New Haven’s Livable City Initiative. Daily monitoring since the fire has shown safe air quality levels, he said.

“Certainly, there’s always a concern in a fire in an old building with the fire department,” Rizzo said.

Seven firemen were checked for exposure at nearby Saint Raphael Hospital, the article points out, and firefighter Patrick Egan, the union’s president, said the union is “considering filing a blanket claim to put the asbestos exposure on record in the event of future illness.”

Fire Lt. James Kottage, another union official, said that “the concern about the Kresge building fire largely revolves around the asbestos and duration firefighters were exposed to the smoke and fumes.”

“You have some guys who were at the fire for 10, 14 hours,” Kottage said. Air quality tests conducted after-the-fact, he added, wouldn’t necessarily account for what was in the smoke at the time of the fire.

Chief Michael Grant thinks the potential of exposure is minimal but believes he can’t be too safe when it comes to protecting the men and women who fight New Haven’s fires.

“Let’s make sure we take the necessary precautions,” he said. “It’s not like the World Trade Center collapse, nothing of that magnitude, but it’s certainly something that you want to address, the concerns that the firefighters might have.”

Asbestos Worries in California Elementary School

A teacher who found exposed asbestos pipes in her classroom is worried about the potential of asbestos contamination.

Speech therapist Victoria DeLuca thought the exposed ceiling pipes in her new classroom looked funny – “kind of bumpy and old despite a fresh coat of paint”, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports. She suspected asbestos and she was right, despite the fact that an environmental inspection company had given the Highlands Elementary School a clean bill of health just two years before.

When she asked to have the pipes tested in late October, DeLuca claims a district maintenance worker came to her classroom and cut off a piece of pipe to send to a lab. Though the process of taking a sample from the pipe probably sent asbestos fibers into the air, the cutting was done in DeLuca’s presence and the worker wore no protective gear, she claims.

According to the article, district officials received a report on Oct. 26 saying that the pipes did indeed contain asbestos, DeLuca said, but 11 days passed before school officials told her about the lab results and assigned her and her special needs students to another room. Her old classroom is still closed.

“That’s 11 days we were continuing to be poisoned,” said DeLuca, who has been a teacher in the district more than 20 years. She added that she teaches about 30 students, each meeting with her in her classroom twice a week.

District officials were unable to explain why it took so long to get DeLuca and her kids out of the contaminated classroom, but they maintain that everything possible is being done to protect the health of teachers, staff, and students.

“It’s important that people know that our district is committed to having a safe environment for our students and staff,” said Assistant Superintendent Joan Rosas. “It is our intention to do a good job.”

Asbestos Causes Evacuation of Apartment Complex

Families that live in an apartment complex in New London, Wisconsin, near Green Bay, aren’t very happy about having to vacate their units just after the Christmas holidays. But the owners of the complex say there’s evidence of high levels of asbestos in several units at the Villa Apartments, making it necessary for nearly a dozen families to spend the holidays readying for a temporary move and finding a new place to live.

According to a story aired on WBAY-TV Green Bay, the 11 families that live in the affected units were told by city inspectors earlier this week that they must leave their apartments no later than January 7th, 2008. Residents were none too pleased at the bad timing.

“I was kind of shocked because I only got three weeks’ notice to find a different shelter, a different house to live in, so I was a little bit upset,” Sharon Blink said.

City inspectors told the news station that the landlord was attempting to make repairs to the heating system, and in doing so removed pipes containing asbestos. As a result, the building is now contaminated.

“[The landlord’s] position was, if you don’t change the boiler, which is the steam system, he didn’t think he needed any permits, but as soon as he started cutting on 1930 pipes, which were asbestos pipes, I think that caused the problem,” Sandy Kurth, a former complex manager, explained.

Tenants will be allowed to move back within 30 to 60 days. In the meantime, they were advised to “decontaminate their clothing, furniture, and other personal possessions.”

Asbestos Suit Nets $2.6 Million for Illinois Family

The family of a Bloomington, Illinois man who died of mesothelioma was awarded $2.6 million by a McLean County jury earlier this week.

According to an article in the Bloomington Pantagraph, John Watkins succumbed to mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer, in September 2005. He was exposed to asbestos when he worked at the Union Asbestos & Rubber Co. in Bloomington – later known as Unarco Industries Inc. – during the summer of 1962 and 1963. At that time, he was not warned of the dangers of working with asbestos, the plaintiffs noted.

The jury found that Honeywell International Inc. “had conspired with other companies, including Unarco, Johns-Manville, Raybestos-Manhattan, Owens-Illinois, Owens Corning and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. to suppress information about the hazards of asbestos, including an agreement not to warn their employees and customers about the hazards of asbestos,” the family’s lawyers said after the verdict. Honeywell merged with Bendix, who used to own the now-defunct Unarco asbestos plant, thus their involvement in the suit.

It took the jury only four hours to deliberate and come to a decision. There is no word as to whether Honeywell International will appeal the verdict.

Asbestos-Tainted Toy Finally Pulled from Shelves

Several weeks after an asbestos awareness organization deemed a popular toy unfit for use due to the presence of asbestos, the toy manufacturer and its sponsor are finally pulling it from the shelves of toy stores nationwide.

According to several news reports, CBS Broadcasting asked that all “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Fingerprint Examination Kits” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Field Kits” be pulled off store shelves. The company said, “fingerprint powder in the kits may be contaminated with asbestos.”

A few months ago, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) tested hundreds of toys and common household products to determine whether or not they contained asbestos. The white powder in this particular toy, used to “lift” fingerprints, was found to contain trace amounts of asbestos.

“ADAO is pleased to be working in unison with CBS and Planet Toys to protect children from toys that may be contaminated with deadly asbestos,” said Linda Reinstein, ADAO Executive Director and co-founder. “Given the grave health risks associated with asbestos exposure, ADAO agrees with CBS that the toy kits should be removed from retail shelves. They should also be placed out of reach in homes until the testing dispute is resolved. Once asbestos is inhaled or swallowed, the damage is irreversible.”

While asbestos is deemed hazardous to anyone of any age, it is particularly lethal when inhaled by children, experts report.