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Camco Is 6th In Asbestos Deaths

Study predicts number of cases will increase

Mar 4, 2004 | Cherry Hill Courier Post

A new study ranks Camden County as having the sixth-most asbestos-related deaths in the nation.

Only counties with major cities Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and Houston had more deaths, according to the analysis of government health statistics by the Environmental Working Group.

In effect, the study suggests many of the region's elderly residents, the shipyard, refinery and factory workers of the past are paying with their health for the region's industrial might.

Jack Higgins was a longtime Camden city resident and worked in maintenance departments at two Camden shipyards and RCA. He was 80 when he died in 1997.

"You had to sit and watch the body deteriorate while the mind was sharp as a tack. It was heartbreaking," said his son, Timothy Higgins, a Collingswood attorney. He added his father had to use bottled oxygen the last years of his life.

"He would describe it as if he were drowning, like he was under water and couldn't breathe," Higgins said.

Camden County, which had an estimated 458 to 532 deaths between 1979 and 2001, even ranked just ahead of Somerset County, once home to the largest asbestos manufacturing plant in North America, owned by the Johns-Manville Corp.

The analysis, released today by the Washington, D.C.-based group, predicts the number of deaths will continue to rise as latency periods for some of the most serious forms of asbestos-related diseases end.

The analysis of government statistics lists 10 other New Jersey counties among the top 100 with the most asbestos-related deaths. Gloucester County ranked 50th and Burlington County is 59th.

Gregg Shivers is a Cherry Hill lawyer whose firm has represented some 2,000 asbestos-related injury cases over the past 15 years.

He was surprised by Camden County's high ranking, but said large numbers of county residents once worked in industries that used or made asbestos.

Camden's now-defunct New York Shipyard, for example, used asbestos in ship insulation, and Owens-Corning once manufactured asbestos insulation in Berlin, he said.

Anthony Olivo, 83, is a longtime Deptford resident. He worked around asbestos for 40 years as a pipe welder.

He says he has been coping well with the asbestosis, scarring of the lungs, that he contracted from decades of exposure. But he feels deeply responsible for the death of his wife, Eleanor, of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung linked directly to asbestos.

She died at the age of 82, less than two years after her diagnosis. She was exposed to the fibers from washing her husband's work clothes.

"Had I known, I would have thrown the clothes away and put a new set of clothes on," he said, crying in the living room of their small Cape Cod cottage where his wife spent her last days.

"I don't know why the good Lord didn't give it back to me. She didn't deserve what she got," he said.

The study comes at a time when Congress is debating financial bailout plans for asbestos manufacturers and their insurers.

Asbestos use and exposure peaked in the mid-1970s, the study said.

At that time, more than 3,000 consumer and industrial products contained asbestos, asbestos factories were polluting neighborhoods, workers were exposed on the job and bringing asbestos fibers home to their families. Asbestos was also widely used in many buildings, including factories and schools.

But asbestos-related diseases have a 20- to 50-year latency period, meaning a substantial portion of those exposed in the 1960s and 1970s are just now getting sick or showing up in government statistics, the study concludes.

Shivers expects an increase in the numbers of lung cancer and mesothelioma cases his firm will handle over the next decade because of the long latency periods for these diseases.

During the study period, at least 43,000 Americans died from mesothelioma and asbestosis. But the Environmental Working Group maintains the number could be much higher.

"The actual number of deaths from these two diseases could easily be twice as high due to chronic misdiagnoses of both diseases and the absence of federal tracking for mesothelioma for nearly all of the time period analyzed," the study reported.

The study adds that lung cancer deaths from asbestos exposure are not reported at all and asbestosis, a non-cancer disease, is still "dramatically underreported, even in worker populations where asbestos exposure is well established."

The federal government banned many uses of asbestos in the early 1980s, including use in ranges and ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers, deep fryers, electric blankets and popcorn poppers.

At the same time, asbestos remains widely used in brake shoes and roofing products, and can still be found in a number of other products, including cement wallboard, heating duct insulation, boiler insulation, vinyl floor tile and sheet flooring and pipe insulation, the study asserts. It also notes that these products are not required to be labeled as containing asbestos. The group is looking for a complete ban.

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