Mesothelioma & Asbestos Round-Up: January 15, 2010

In the past few weeks, two major stories concerning asbestos exposure have appeared in the news. While it’s encouraging to see an international spotlight being put on this serious issue, both stories underscore troubling themes in the response to asbestos exposure.

In each of these cases, the focus is on the aftermath of asbestos exposure rather than on prevention. Each is marked by bitter wranglings and arguments about responsibility, liability, and compensation. And while in each case, there have been some positive outcomes, they also serve to illustrate how political and commercial self-interest can sometimes get in the way of justice.

The Ongoing Effort to Clean Up Libby, Montana

Let’s start in the U.S. In the past, we’ve reported on the heartbreaking case of Libby, Montana, where asbestos contamination sickened and killed miners and their families. More than 30 years after the company became aware of the danger – and continued to expose local residents – the mining firm W.R. Grace was finally brought to trial on criminal charges.

In May, 2009, victims and their families were dealt yet another blow as W.R. Grace and three of its former executives were acquitted of all charges. The New York Times reported that during the trial, Judge Donald W. Molloy excluded some compelling evidence offered by prosecution as “prejudicial,” including company memos in which executives discussed the costs of people dying in Libby. Swift on the heels of this decision, the EPA declared a public health emergency in Libby, and the Department of Health and Human Services earmarked $6 million to finance treatment at the nearby Lincoln County Health Clinic.

Libby again appeared in the headlines in December during debates about the recently passed health care bill. Several news outlets noted that, while not specifically named, Libby would receive benefits “buried” in the proposed bill as a proposal to expand Medicare coverage to cover certain victims of “environmental health hazards.”

Montana senator Max Baucus has defended the proposal, noting that it’s a necessary and responsible part of this country’s health care plan, which should protect future victims as well as those in Libby. “The people of Libby were poisoned and have been dying for more than a decade,” he said. “New residents continue to get sick all the time. Public health tragedies like this could happen in any town in America. We need this type of mechanism to help people when they need it most.”

Scottish Insurers Lose Compensation Battle

The issue of compensation for victims of asbestos exposure has also taken center stage in Scotland. During a 22-day hearing, UK insurance companies sought to overturn a law giving victims of pleural plaques the right to compensation. Pleural plaques is a benign scarring of the lungs caused by asbestos exposure. On January 8, 2010, the challenge to the law was rejected, and the new act was upheld, requiring that insurers compensate claims by sufferers of this condition.

The battle was a win for victims, and sheds light on the lengths to which insurance companies will go to avoid paying compensation. According to the insurers involved in the hearing, pleural plaques did not count as a “disease,” even though the condition indicates a higher risk for developing mesothelioma.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) intends to appeal the decision, declaring, “This is not the end of the road.”

But Member of Scottish Parliament Stuart McMillan highlighted the other side of the argument: “In Scotland we have the legislation to ensure those who should be compensated for their injuries receive that compensation  not to deprive people of legitimate compensation as the insurance companies were attempting.”

And general secretary Alan Ritchie’s comment underscored the competing interests that drove this challenge, saying, “The insurance industry were using the judicial review to delay paying compensation to asbestos victims both north and south of the border. It was a very cynical manoeuvre and I am pleased it has failed.”

While new legal provisions and protections such as these can help redress some of the damage done by asbestos exposure, all too often the legal system is the last recourse for victims who have been poisoned, exploited, and ignored. The crusade to ban asbestos and raise awareness about this deadly substance must be our first line of attack against mesothelioma.