Testing urged for ex-Texas Vermiculite workers
W. Dallas: State hopes to find those needing asbestos-related careAug 20, 2006 | The Dallas Morning News
Nearly a year after federal authorities revealed that hundreds of employees at the former Texas Vermiculite plant in West Dallas could have asbestos-related lung diseases, the state is getting ready to begin health screenings on the former workers.
That is, if they can be found.
"That may be a very difficult problem," said Brad Walsh, strategic planning projects director at Parkland Memorial Hospital, one of three institutions that perform the evaluations. "We've kicked around some ideas, but I probably shouldn't speculate."
Since state lawmakers from West Dallas held public meetings on the issue in October, no former workers have identified themselves to those legislators – Democratic state Reps. Rafael Anchia and Terri Hodge and state Sen. Royce West, all of Dallas. People signed in, but the meetings were designed to urge people who believed they had asbestos-related health problems to seek treatment; they were not designed necessarily to identify former workers at the plant, which was owned by W.R. Grace & Co.
Dr. Jeffrey Levin, chairman of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Department at University of Texas Health Center at Tyler, agreed that finding the workers could be difficult. UT-Tyler and UT Southwestern Medical Center also will participate in the screenings.
"Recruiting them is the next step," Dr. Levin said of the former workers and family members to whom the workers could have carried home asbestos fibers.
A 2005 report on the Texas Vermiculite site by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists numbers of workers – for example, 38 in 1980. But it is unclear whether workers' names are contained in a database that Grace gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report states that the database contained "confidential business information as well as private information that is not available to the public."
Dr. John Villanacci of the Texas Department of State Health Services said up to $250,000 in grant money could be used starting Oct. 1 to do the screenings.
The legacy of repeated toxic exposure continues to anger certain members of the largely black and Hispanic neighborhood in West Dallas. A few residents are protesting outside a West Dallas health clinic where another state-sponsored Parkland-Southwest study is being done. It is asking people to release health records dating to the 1970s so investigators can look into possible lead-related birth defects.
The protesters say any money for studies should instead be used for treatment of illnesses related to lead and asbestos exposure.
"They're constantly asking people to do studies and treating people like they're laboratory research data," said neighborhood leader Diane Smith. "That's not treating their medical conditions. That's not giving them any reparations."
While Mr. Walsh is sympathetic to the protesters, he is concerned that a focus on reparations might prevent people from seeking health care.
"Nobody should be walking around Dallas County with untreated health problems. They can come into Parkland."