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Asbestos-Death Study Says Wayne Co. Number Is High

Group ranks it 15th in nation; more at risk

Mar 5, 2004 | Detroit Free Press

Wayne County, a place where asbestos-dependent industries flourished for decades and millions of pounds of asbestos-laden ore was processed, has the 15th-highest number of asbestos-related deaths nationwide since 1979, according to a study released Thursday.

The study, by the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., estimates raw numbers of deaths, not rates, so it is of limited value in identifying asbestos hot spots.

But it is the first time anyone has made a scientific estimate of deaths from mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer the government began tracking in 1999 separate from other cancers, said Jon Corsiglia, a spokesman for the environmental group.

The mesothelioma death numbers are drops in the bucket compared to other types of cancers, researchers admit, but they may be a precursor to a wave of illnesses in the coming decade as those exposed to asbestos 15 to 30 years ago begin to show symptoms.

"We have no idea how many people were seriously exposed," said Richard Wiles, a vice president with the group.

He also said people who lived or worked with Zonolite brand insulation manufactured for years in Dearborn and still in hundreds of thousands of Michigan attics may be at risk.

Wayne County had between 248 and 391 mesothelioma deaths since 1979, and 69 more from asbestosis -- a noncancerous scarring of the lungs caused by asbestos. The study used high and low figures, based on variables used to extrapolate the deaths from general cancer statistics before 1999.

Oakland County ranked 81st out of more than 2,300 counties in the study.

The news comes amid political battles over victim compensation playing out in Congress and the Michigan Supreme Court.

The U.S. Senate is expected to debate a plan this spring to establish a $114-billion trust fund financed primarily by industry and insurers to cover asbestos illness claims.

Backers say it will weed out frivolous claims and speed money to sick people. Opponents contend it is not nearly enough money and leaves out many victims.

In Michigan, the Supreme Court is considering shunting all asbestos lawsuits filed by people without malignant cancers to an inactive docket. When and if their disease progresses, the suits would reactivate.

A federal health investigation is under way into facilities across the country, including the former W.R. Grace plant on Henn Street in Dearborn, that processed asbestos-contaminated vermiculite for decades. Vermiculite is a mineral used for fireproofing and insulation, including the ubiquitous Zonolite insulation.

The environmental group's study tracked 325 million pounds of contaminated vermiculite to Dearborn, but found that other sites in Michigan received only small amounts of the mineral. They included Reed City, River Rouge, Grand Rapids, Warren, Elsie and Milan.

Asbestos was used in a wide spectrum of consumer products but has been removed from many. It is still used in brake linings, some cement products and some other applications.

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