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L.A. Tops Nation In Asbestos-Linked Deaths

Mar 4, 2004 | Los Angeles Daily News Los Angeles County has more asbestos-related deaths than anywhere else in the country, and the incidence of illness caused by the mineral is expected to rise over the next 20 years, a report released today says.

The report by the Environmental Working Group estimated that 1,227 county residents died of asbestos-related illness from 1979 to 2001, slightly more than the 1,051 in Cook County, Ill., which encompasses the Chicago area. Nationwide, some 10,000 people died of asbestos-related disease in 2002.

Experts said Los Angeles' large population, plus the widespread asbestos use in the shipping industry and post-World War II construction, help explain the county's high death figures.

"We were just floored when we looked at the deaths from this substance," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group. "We need to think of this as a 50-year problem because we still haven't banned asbestos.

Asbestos fibers can become embedded in the lungs and cause asbestosis essentially, scar tissue in the lungs or a usually fatal form of cancer called mesothelioma. Not all people exposed to asbestos become ill, but even small amounts can cause mesothelioma.

Until its dangers became well-known, asbestos was commonly used in construction and insulation materials and as a fire retardant. Its use peaked in the mid-1970s, when there were more than 3,000 asbestos-laced products on the market, though there were few safeguards for workers and their families exposed to asbestos dust.

Even today, asbestos is used in some cement pipes, vinyl floor tiles, duct insulation, floor backing and decorative plaster.

Cancer and other diseases linked to asbestos can remain dormant for 20 to 50 years, meaning people who worked with the fibers before safeguards were phased in during the 1970s could still develop potentially fatal illnesses.

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has proposed the creation of a trust fund, financed by asbestos manufacturers and insurance companies, to handle lawsuits filed by asbestos victims and their families without bankrupting businesses.

Insurance companies anticipate $120 billion in asbestos claims worldwide and have pushed for national legislation to cut litigation, streamline the compensation process and set aside money to help people diagnosed with asbestos diseases.

"We know that 90 percent of current claimants have no signs of illnesses, but they are trying to get in before all these companies go bankrupt," said Peter Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California.

Already, some 70 companies have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Michelle Harrington has filed a $100,000 claim against W.R. Grace, which declared bankruptcy in 2001, in part because of damages awarded in wrongful-death suits stemming from its mine in Libby, Mont., where some 200 townspeople died from asbestos-related diseases.

The owner of Harrington Tools is seeking to be reimbursed for having to clean up asbestos contamination in the West San Fernando Road building she bought in 1992 a structure previously owned by a company that processed more than 100,000 tons of insulation, using asbestos from the Libby mine.

"Not being my responsibility or my fault, I was absolutely furious," Harrington said. "Private companies cannot be held responsible or accountable for something they never did."

California toxicologists are analyzing historical cancer and cause-of-death data in the neighborhood around the West San Fernando Road plant as part of a national study of plants that processed the Libby material potentially discovering a new group of victims who might seek compensation.

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