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Asbestos News

Asbestos fight recalled

By John Sutter, The Oklahoman

September 2005

Tom Tarver can name nine friends and former co-workers who have been killed by their common profession.

A long-time member of the local Asbestos Workers Union, Tarver, 69, now has mesothelioma too. The disease is caused by exposure to asbestos, a fiber once used liberally as an insulation.

"I knew it could happen. It picks and chooses its way through a local (union)," he said. "It's like a ticking time bomb. You know it can go off at any time."

But he's not bitter. Tarver said he loved his years working construction and installing insulation. And on Labor Day -- a holiday with roots in the workers movement of the early 1900s -- Tarver is thankful for what his union has done to help those made sick by asbestos and to protect future generations. Without union pressure, he said, asbestos manufacturers might have continued selling the deadly powder longer than they did.

Asbestos rarely has been used in construction since the early 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety & Health Administration heavily regulate its use. OSHA estimates 1.3 million Americans still face asbestos exposure on the job. Most of those workers renovate old buildings.

Tarver said he's gone through 15 rounds of chemotherapy in the past 11 months. He said the union is like a "brotherhood" and has supported him through his illness with kind words and helpful information on his disease.

"I've enjoyed being a union person all my life," he said. "It's provided well for my family and it's given me dignity."

Tarver is a retired member of the Oklahoma City chapter of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers. The union downplays the word asbestos at the end of its lengthy title because union members don't regularly deal with asbestos now, said the group's safety and heath administrator, Terry Lynch.

Since asbestos stopped being used as an insulator, insulation workers deal in fiberglass and other safe materials. But the union is putting money towards research of fiberglass to make sure it's not the new asbestos.

Local union workers do come in contact with asbestos when remodeling old buildings. Business Manager Jimmy Fish said a four-year apprenticeship potential union members go through includes training to recognize the powdery substance.

The local Asbestos Workers Union has 80 active and 45 retired members and is somewhat of a family affair. Retired member Richard Flinsbaugh, 72, feels lucky to have his health. His dad, who chartered Oklahoma City's union in 1930, died in his 50s. Now his brother, also a former asbestos worker, is sick.

But Flinsbaugh would rather talk unions than harp on disease. He's proud of his family's union heritage.

He said his father, John Flinsbaugh, "really felt for the working guy."

As for Tarver, six months ago he learned that the cancer, which at one point wove a giant web in his stomach lining, had shrunk to nearly nothing. But Thursday the news was worse. His cancer is back.

He refuses to give up hope.

"We just take it one day at a time, that's all you can do," he said, speaking for himself and his wife. "My heart's right with the Lord, that's the main thing."