August 31st, 2010

The Times-Dispatch in Virginia published an article by Jim Morris, an excellent journalist on environmental issues. It is terrifyingly titled, “US Asbestos Toll May Reach A Half Million Deaths”.

Most of you likely think this substance has been banned by now. Many of us recall the scandal of so many military personnel exposed to it at naval bases, on ships etc. Flame resistant, we chose it as a form of insulation for hot water pipes. School teachers recall ceiling tiles composed of the stuff. No, it has not been banned. Its use in this country has been greatly reduced but is still likely to be found in the brakes of your car or some other product you’ve not suspected. In fact, you may have it in your home but not realize it because many real estate deals included indemnification clauses (“I don’t know if it’s there and you can’t sue me later on if it turns up or you get cancer. So there!”).

Perhaps you know its encasing your older pipes but don’t realize it’s reached the friable stage requiring removal. I once rented a house on Long Island, only to find it all over the basement on my first day there. I camped out in the yard that month until I got a new place. Conditions were such that the home couldn’t be rented again until professional remediation was performed and the owner was very regretful. Probably more for her expense than my enforced period of camping but that’s the real estate game for you. Luckily for me, it was high summer. And it was just a little hurricane. I’ve never looked at the phrase, “Shelter from the storm”, in quite the same way since then.

This isn’t in the least funny. Nothing is more vital to our well-being than our dwellings. The substances in our homes, offices, schools and libraries; our clothing, food, fuels and other accouterments to our lives can contain some appalling materials. When are we going to take it seriously enough to hear all of those voices calling to us that they are literally ‘sick to death’ of vendors being allowed to sell frankly lethal products? We pay the costs of the associated losses in health care expenses, lost work productivity and benefits to survivors of those who die in the cause of what is mistakenly referred to as a ‘free marketplace’. NOTHING comes free. Everything comes with some responsibility attached to it and freedom of choice isn’t one of them when you are forced to ingest, breathe and absorb toxic materials.

While this post interrupts the thread on litigation, just look at what Jim Morris has to say about the legal costs of asbestos related suits. Not quite so unrelated as it might seem.

My commentary on this pieces was as follows:

Thank you for this analysis which infers a great deal about what Americans are prepared to tolerate in this country at our own expense. First, why is any asbestos still being sold today when we’ve known of its lethal properties since the sixties? Few consumers even know this substance is in current use in their cars. Apart from risk to workers, are fibers entering cars through vents or being inhaled on the streets by pedestrians?

Many real estate rental/sale agreements include indemnities for asbestos and chlordane contamination in a property. Why wouldn’t an owner be required to know about these two, potentially lethal conditions in their homes? I’ve personally tested residences with high levels of chlordane shown to be present and asbestos has no safe level of exposure at all. If consumers shared responsibility for acquiring property contaminated with such substances, a ban would be in high demand. Mortgage companies should be asking for proofs of this type just as they do for termite inspections. Invisible property damage exists if building conditions will produce illness in some of its occupants.

We must also ask the identities of those companies still marketing asbestos ‘aggressively’ overseas so we can boycott them. Such willful imposition of harm upon their customers would seem to make any of their products suspect in terms of safety. Under capitalism, consumer dollars should only reward the makers of the best products which means we all have an obligation in such matters.

Another trail of money to follow is in legal costs. This article cites industry losses of 70 billion in total, with 49 billion to victims and lawyers. Why don’t we have a registry for claims requiring medical proof alone and a basic judicial review? This would end costly court battles as lawyers are currently occupied with re-try the same cases over and over again and take large percentages of awards from needy victims. Lawyers would then be available to take more complex claims for those who might be excluded from the expedited process as well as fight new battles on the consumer health front.

That would save billions of dollars and likely make bans on patently harmful products more desirable.

Barbara Rubin

Categories: Newspaper Commentary, Published, Times-Dispatch

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