Legacy turning deadly
Lung disease hits thousands; retirees at risk
By ADAM BOWLES
Norwich Bulletin, September 4, 2005
Thomas McGovern was a strong, healthy pipefitter at Electric Boat in Groton when he watched the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, slip below the Thames River for its maiden voyage on Jan. 21, 1954.
But time passed, and the asbestos used to insulate the piping on the Nautilus, and used the same way on other submarines at Electric Boat in Groton again and again, exposed him to tiny, deadly fibers that ruined his lungs.
For years, the Norwich resident suffered from asbestosis — a progressive disease involving scarring of lung tissues — before unrelated cancer killed him at age 73 in 1996. He wasn’t alone in his suffering.
“The ones Tom chummed with — they all died from (asbestos),” his wife, Rita McGovern, said. “All our gang. And all the wives are still here.”
More than 40 years after submarine workers started getting sick with asbestos-related diseases, hundreds of people in the region continue to die or get sick each year from these illnesses due to long dormancy periods.
And the scourge that claimed thousands of EB workers and still leaves behind hundreds of grieving widows and loved ones isn’t expected to taper off for another 10 years or so, medical and legal experts say.
“It is the white hand of death reaching through the decades,” said attorney Stephen Embry, whose Groton office focuses on asbestos cases — 90 percent of them from EB, but also some from Pfizer Inc. in Groton, Millstone Power Plant in Waterford and union welders statewide. “These were people basically working to make the U.S. safer and now they are being snatched in their 60s and 70s and their retirements are being taken from them.”
Electric Boat, a subsidiary of General Dynamic Corp., designs, builds and supports submarines for the U.S. Navy.
Electric Boat replies
EB spokesman Neil Ruenzel said the shipyard has operated an asbestos surveillance program since the enactment of the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1971.
The program features employee exposure monitoring, medical surveillance and training.
Ruenzel said he could not answer any other asbestos-related questions. Some 8,250 people work at EB’s Groton shipyard and 500 more work on site at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.
“Electric Boat is currently involved in the litigation of asbestos exposure cases,” he said. “Electric Boat does not comment on matters in litigation.”
While some medical practices are beginning to see a drop-off in the number of such patients, Dr. Stephen Matarese is one expert witnessing more defense workers with asbestos diseases.
Lung cancer is on the rise, according to local doctors and lawyers, but people also suffer from asbestosis and mesothelioma, or cancer of the lining of the lungs.
(The only government-kept statistics for asbestos-related illnesses in Connecticut comes from the state Department of Health, but those numbers are greatly underreported.)
Matarese, a lung specialist who has practiced in Warwick, R.I., for 15 years, began his work with just one or two such cases a year, but in the last five years he has seen between 12-15 new EB cases a year.
“As these gentlemen reach retirement, it comes to light,” Matarese said. “It’s peaking.”
He said he has 50 patients who are former Electric Boat workers; some worked at the shipyard at Quonset Point, R.I., while others commuted to Groton because the pay was good.
Matarese doesn’t expect the number of deaths to stop until about 2025, when the last of the men who would have worked at EB prior to the elimination of asbestos at the shipyard in 1974 would survive the period of 10-50 years in which asbestos-related cancers remain inactive.
Asbestos was a time bomb that few heard tick until 1964, when Dr. Irving Selikoff linked the deaths of insulation workers at a New York shipyard to exposure to the oft-used construction material, long coveted for its durability and resistance to heat.
Seven years later, the federal Environmental Protection Agency listed asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant and began to regulate its use. Asbestos is made up of microscopic fibers that become lodged in the periphery of the lung. Some fibers disintegrate. Many don’t.
Attorney Matthew Shafner of Groton filed hisfirst worker’s compensation claim for asbestos against Electric Boat in 1974 and his first lawsuit against an asbestos company — also, the first one in New England — in 1975.
One of Shafner’s saddest cases was of a 34-year-old woman who died from exposure to asbestos. She didn’t work at EB but hugged her father every day he came home from the shipyard.
Back in the 1970s, it was easy for attorneys to link lung scarring to exposure to asbestos. Now, workers who were once exposed to asbestos have lived long enough to get cancer.
The problem for Shafner and other attorneys was 80 percent of the blue-collar workers in general and at EB smoked. Wasn’t that the real reason they were getting cancer?
In these cases, doctors testified that while cigarettes no doubt contribute to cancer, asbestos and nicotine combined to increase the odds by 50-70 percent.
“It’s like pouring gasoline on the fire and that’s why we’re seeing an explosion in the epidemic” in New London County and Western Rhode Island, Shafner said.
The cancer center at Yale University’s School of Medicine helped administer a study that addressed the controversial litigation issue.
Seven percent of the 4,000 participants died of lung cancer, according to findings published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in February.
All the men had been exposed to asbestos but were cancer-free when they joined the study in the early 1990s.
Yale tracked 1,000 of the participants from an office in Groton, including some 700 EB workers.
Dr. Mark Cullen of Yale expected the number of deaths related to lung cancer to double in the next decade.
“We have now shown pretty much beyond a shadow of a doubt that even without asbestosis, asbestos causes lung cancer and the more you are exposed the more you are at risk,” Cullen said. “We are still in the scourge period. We’re at a time when doctors should most be on the outlook for these problems emerging. They’re at that age and latency can be as long as 20, 30, 40 years.”
Shafner has had clients from Norwich to Putnam and along the shoreline. Some worked at Rogers Corp. in Killingly, Pfizer Inc. in Groton and Millstone Power Plant in Waterford.
But most worked at EB, which used the most asbestos in the region.
“I thought it would be well over by now,” he said. “I thought I’d be doing something else with my life. Instead I’m still doing asbestos work. Over the last decade, we have been seeing more and more cancer.”
From 1994-2004, 576 claims related to asbestos exposure were filed against EB with the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.
In the flood of asbestos litigation in the 1970s, lawyers bypassed worker compensation claims and sued asbestos companies in federal court. By the 1980s, these companies filed for bankruptcy to avoid large payouts.
Today, the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act provides compensation and medical aid to shipbuilders and their qualified dependent survivors.
Congress, meanwhile, continues to debate legislation that would establish a trust fund for asbestos victims.U.S. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, supports privately funded, publicly administered compensation for asbestos victims.
“The measure offers an equitable solution to a problem that is delaying too many victims from receiving their just compensation,” said Joseph Bell, a spokesman for Simmons. “It is costing too many workers in affected companies to lose their jobs.”
A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would establish medical criteria to limit the number of cases that can be taken to court.
But Doug Larkin, spokesman for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said a coalition of asbestos groups nationwide oppose the medical criteria bill and Senate’s bill to establish a trust fund because it either limits or eliminates the liability of companies that used asbestos.
“It’s an effort for the companies to make it more difficult for the victims who are sick to have their day in court,” said Larkin, who described asbestos as the largest manmade disaster in U.S. history.
Embry, the asbestos attorney who grew up in the house across from his office on a street overlooking the submarine maker, said exposure to asbestos is like inhaling meat tenderizer.
Asbestosis sets in when asbestos fibers lodge deeper than just the lung lining and cause scar tissue, stiffening the lungs that normally expand and contract freely with every breath. Eventually, some victims asphyxiate.
In some cases, the asbestos fibers can become carcinogenic.
With mesothelioma, the lungs collapse and fluid builds up in the chest wall with each breath.
Victims of lung cancer, which has a dormancy period of 20-40 years, may develop a chronic cough and even cough up blood. They become extremely tired and lose weight.
Some victims spend their last days on air mattresses to ease the compression on their chest.
“Imagine if you walked around all day long with a pillow stuffed down your throat,” said Embry, who said he has had 4,000 asbestos-related cases since he began his career in 1975 and sees up to 100 new cases each year.
None of the asbestos-related diseases has a cure or can be prevented once a person has been exposed to asbestos.
After many years prosecuting cases from his Groton office, Embry realized he needed to open an office near Tampa. Many EB workers from Norwich and the region moved to Florida for their retirement years.
They looked forward to spending the rest of their lives playing golf, enjoying nice weather, and walking on the beaches. Instead a deadly memento from Eastern Connecticut changed everything, Embry said.
Dr. Nagi Kamireddy, who works at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, is another pulmonary doctor who is seeing more and more patients with previous asbestos exposure.
Kamireddy arrived in Norwich in 1983, having worked in Westchester, the Bronx and Manhattan, cities where he saw few asbestos cases.
His first patient was a maintenance worker in his 40s at the hospital itself. It turned out the man had worked at EB. The man suffered mesothelioma and died in six months.
“I thought when I came to Norwich from New York, ‘It’s a small place. I’m going to see less cancer’,” he said. “But it’s not that way. I didn’t know why. It struck me maybe it’s because of EB.”
Ken DelaCruz is the president of the Metal Trades Council, which represents nine unions and some 3,400 workers. He started a 30-year career as a welder at EB in 1973, when he was 19 and one year before the shipyard stopped using asbestos, replacing it with ceramic material.
DelaCruz, 50, said he is in good health, but is worried about his exposure to asbestos. His uncle, a former EB worker, died from asbestosis.
Richard “Soupie” Desrosiers, 62, of Taftville, shares DelaCruz’s concerns. Desrosiers worked at EB from 1963-98, spending his early years as a pipefitter.
The four older men he used to carpool with to work used to slip into the car at the end of the day with their overalls covered in asbestos, he said. They have all since died from the exposure.
In the 1980s, an X-ray revealed Desrosiers has pleural plaques, or a thickened patch on the two layers of membrane that line the chest wall and cover the lungs. They do not cause cancer but show that a person may have been exposed to asbestos.
Doctors say many former EB workers live with an abiding, debilitating fear that they will become sick.
“It was everywhere,” DelaCruz said of asbestos, which not only was used to insulate pipes, but was used in fireproof blankets that covered components for protection during certain projects. “If you were a welder or a burner or did any hot work it was used.”
DelaCruz said his union doesn’t track the number of workers who get sick from asbestos but does hear from retired members who have become ill. He likens the asbestos fallout to the cigarette industry.
In 1966, for instance, an asbestos company memo cited by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America stated: “If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it?”
“The industry knew it wasn’t good for you,” DelaCruz said. “For God’s sake, people have been ingesting the stuff. It’s a horrible way to die.”