The Toll: 9,000 Sick or Dead
Part 4: An alarming survey
By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 9, 2001
In 1984, Selikoff conducted the only known medical survey of local shipyard
workers, at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Of 142 employees who
submitted to X-rays, 113, or 79 percent, exhibited signs of lung abnormalities
consistent with asbestos exposure. X-rays given to 90 wives of shipyard
workers revealed that eight, or 9 percent, showed similar abnormalities.
Those workers had volunteered for the survey and thus did not represent
a random sampling of shipyard workers.
Still, many employees who did not work directly with asbestos products
were exposed to the dust, including tradesmen who toiled in areas where
asbestos insulation was installed or removed, foremen, security guards,
even architects and secretaries.
Selikoff concluded his study by noting that the results ``indicate that
a large proportion of the men working at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard have
suffered important asbestos exposure. We also know that a proportion of
those so exposed stand a significant risk of death of a variety of asbestos-associated
In the report, Selikoff recommended that the shipyard eliminate all exposure
to asbestos, even the most minimal; that the government conduct its own,
more extensive survey of asbestos workers; and that the Navy establish
a comprehensive medical surveillance program for shipyard workers.
Selikoff had hoped the Navy would compare the results of his survey with
those of similar screenings at other shipyards. Four years passed, and
the Navy did not respond to his entreaties. Finally, he published the
results in 1988.
Neither the naval shipyard nor Newport News Shipbuilding, the nation's
largest private shipyard, has conducted an asbestos-disease study involving
current or former workers, nor do they plan to, officials for the shipyards
told The Virginian-Pilot.
``The hazards of working with asbestos and the controls needed to address
those hazards have already been extensively studied and documented for
both maritime and general industry,'' said a naval shipyard spokesman.
Industrial hygiene experts believe it is a mistake for the yards not
to assess the scope of the asbestos-disease problem among workers.
The shipyards ``should have conducted surveys,'' said Dr. Arthur Frank,
an environmental health professor at the University of Texas Health Center
at Tyler, a former Selikoff protege. ``It's good public health policy.''
Paul Burnsky, who was then head of the AFL-CIO's Metal Trades Department
in Washington, helped Selikoff conduct the 1984 survey of shipyard workers.
The Navy's failure to respond to the study angered him.
``I don't know what their hang-up is, but they are not cooperating,''
Burnsky said in 1988. ``It is really something that the Navy is not paying
any attention to.''
Now retired and living in Maryland, Burnsky said during a January interview
that the asbestos problem ``was something the Navy simply didn't want
to recognize. They avoided it.''