andrew schneider investigates

September 22, 2008

Court nixes use of wet asbestos removal

Filed under: Asbestos,Environmental health issues,EPA,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 12:54

It’s great when someone gets nailed for taking actions that endanger public health. For some, including me, it’s even better when that someone getting busted is a government entity that acted as if the law didn’t apply to them.

That’s what happened last week when a federal court ruled that the city of St. Louis and the city-owned Lambert-St. Louis International Airport violated federal asbestos safety standards when they demolished asbestos-laden buildings in Bridgeton, a
community in the path of a new runway.

The EPA calls the technique the “wet method,” and hopes to use it in urban areas throughout the country. In using the technique, the environmental agency ignores its own detailed regulations requiring the removal, bagging and safe disposal of the cancer-causing asbestos from the structure.

Instead, water hoses were used to blast the contaminant from pipes, walls, ceilings and attics.

Beginning in 2000, St. Louis officials started destroying 2,000 structures for the construction the runway and the unauthorized method was used for more than three years.

In mid-2004, The Post-Dispatch reported that airport contractors had used the untested “wet method” on 260 homes and had plans for hundreds more. They seemed not to care that many of the homes nearby were still occupied by people who had yet to settle on the forced sales.

This did not keep contractors from targeting neighboring homes with the high-pressure streams, which, in many cases, sent the asbestos-carrying water streaming down neighborhood streets.

Many of EPA’s top toxicologists and asbestos experts decried the technique as dangerous, insisting that the effectiveness of the processed be carefully evaluated for safety. Other EPA technicians insisted that the unusual method was a “major money-saver,” and should be used. Headquarters supported the pro-industry stance until some members of Congress weighed in.

The same EPA officials that supported the St. Louis testing wanted to use the method to bring down a motel in Fort Worth and continue to try to use it in poor sections of other Texas cities. AS it happens, the method’s most vocal supporter is Richard Greene, EPA’s regional administration in Dallas. A former mayor of Arlington, Texas, he said the technique is a great idea. Yet I have found no indications that he has called for health studies on the method.

The successful suit against St. Louis officials was brought by Public Justice. The non-profit public interest law firm sued in behalf of people who lived near the demolished buildings and were concerned that their health was threatened by asbestos releases during the demolitions.

“This is the first time a federal court has held a city liable for violating federal asbestos safety standards,” said Public Justice Environmental Enforcement Director Jim Hecker, co-counsel in the case.

“It’s outrageous that public health officials risked exposing an entire community to asbestos, just so the city and the airport authority could save money by using a cheaper asbestos removal method.”

Those who lived in the community, especially those with children, worried about about asbestos fibers float freely when the runoff water dried.

“The Airport Authority used the illegal wet method on three houses within a block of my home while I was living there,” said Carole Donnelly, a Bridgeton resident. “I am outraged that no one told me that this method was illegal and that required steps to protect my health were ignored.”

Sean Donnelly, who also lived nearby added: “The city and the airport authority conducted an illegal and immoral human experiment on our community without our knowledge or consent.”

Public Justice successfully fought another EPA effort to use the method in Ft. Worth late last year.

Some in EPA say they hope that when and if Greene is replace with the change of administrations, calmer heads will prevail and conduct the extensive testing needed to determine whether the wet method is actually safe to use.

Most agree that a new technique for removing asbestos would be useful, but only if it does no harm.

If you want a lot more detail on what happened in St. Louis, here is a link.


September 17, 2008

Finally, an asbestos ban? Maybe

For almost two decades, skirmishes, bare-knuckle brawls and knock-down battles have been fought to prevent Americans from being exposed to the lethal effects of asbestos. But the latest congressional assault launched yesterday may finally breech the lobbyist-protected walls surrounding the asbestos industry.


Do you remember the comic character Charlie Brown racing to kick a football that Lucy always holds and jerks away at the last moment?

That’s pretty much what it has been like when it comes to government attempts to pass a life-saving law which would ban the mining, production, importation, use and sale of asbestos.

Monuments to the dangers of asbestos can be seen in graveyards near the taconite mines in Minnesota, Michigan’s auto plants, Boeing’s aircraft factories in Washington, talc mines in New York, the vermiculite mine at Libby, Mont., and near shipyards coast to coast. Millions more are being treated for ivarious asbestos-caused diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

More than 40 countries, including all members of the European Union, have banned asbestos So why has it been so hard to ban the killing fiber in the U.S.?

In 1989, the EPA instituted a ban. Months later, the Canadian asbestos industry hauled it into court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it on technical reasons.

Last October, after six years of meetings, scores of hearings, arm-twisting, deal-making � all vital to Washington politics at its most skillful level – Sen. Patty Murray got the entire U.S. Senate to pass a ban on asbestos.

At first, the public health community cheered. But a careful reading of the final language made it clear that the ban really wasn’t all that was expected or needed.

George Biekkola, a Michigan taconite miner, testified to ban asbestos that destroyed his lungs. He died a year after speaking before Sen. Murray’s committee. P-I Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr.

But it didn’t go far enough. Trying to keep Republican support and appease the automotive, sand, gravel and mining interests, somewhere between the final air-tight version that Murray fought for and the wording that the Senate finally voted upon, there were unexpected loopholes that torpedoed almost all of Murray’s enormous effort.

Responding to the outcry from both civilian and government public health advocates. the House Committee on Energy and Commerce said it would try to plug the holes and issue its own ban.

Many of the same experts that worked so hard for Murray responded to the call from the House. Those opposing the ban also quickly mobilized.

The White House Office of Management and Budget tried and failed to keep the EPA from supporting a ban of “any products in which asbestos is intentionally added, used or knowingly present as a contaminant.”

The bill – H.R. 6903 – is sponsored by Texas Democrat Gene Green, the chairman of the subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, who said that every year nearly 10,000 people in the United States die from asbestos-related diseases’ and the ban is needed “to protect the health of all Americans from this deadly toxic material.”

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of Safety and Health, said: “This legislation would finally stop the future use of asbestos in this country and prevent future unnecessary exposures and deaths from this toxic killer.”

Other House committees will have to weigh in to add money for research on asbestos-related disease. There are many significant improvements in Green’s legislation.

One of the most crucial is a limit on how much asbestos can exist in any product that is mined, imported, processed, used or sold. Industry had convinced the Senate that any products or material with below 1 percent asbestos content was “safe.”

Far from it, said the public health community. Asbestos is a proven human carcinogen and there is absolutely no known “safe” level of exposure.

The House bill sets a limit of zero percent asbestos, none, in products and much safer limit of 0.001 percent for five minerals often contaminated with asbestos fibers. They would be calcium carbonate, olivine, talc, vermiculite, and wollastonite.

Also, the law would ban the asbestos-contaminated waste from taconite iron mining which companies to sell for road and runway surfacing.

And now, years after government health investigators showed that asbestos-tainted talc was killing many of the workers who mined it and the consumers who used it, it too will be illegal.


September 12, 2008

Industry buys its way into federal lab.

Ethicists and watchdogs of conflicts-of-interest in government should have a field day with this posting.

There are three players in this mini-drama:

–The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a major government research center created to reduce the burden of human illness and disability by understanding how the environment influences the development and progression of human disease.

–The Electric Power Research Institute, the research arm of the utility industry whose members represent more than 90 percent of the electricity generated and delivered in the United States.

–And Microwave News, with a 25 year history of doing what many say are well-researched unbiased reports on the potential health and environmental impacts of electromagnetic fields and radiation.

The industry watchdog reports that the highly regarded federal health experts have agreed to allow the industry association to pay them for the writing and printing of a “information booklet” on electromagnetic fields.

It has again become a hot topic (no pun intended).

The health effects of magnetic radiation from microwave ovens and power lines have been studied for decades. But now, with billions of people, especially children, spending a good part of every day with a cell phone pressed against their heads, interest and concern has risen anew. Can harm be done by the tiny amount of radiation emitted off the phone?

Having the NIEHS logo on the report would offer instant credibility.

Christine Flowers, director of communications at NIEHS, told Microwave News that industry cannot influence the report. “This would be absolutely hands off,” she said.

News of the deal landed with a thud. “This is an outrageous proposal that should not be allowed to happen,” David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York in Albany, told the online publication.

“The public health issues are too serious to allow them to be perverted by EPRI and the industry. NIEHS has no business taking funds from a group with such a clear conflict of interest.”

Microwave News quoted another observer saying that this arrangement would be like having Exxon pay for an EPA pamphlet on global warming.

One of the ironies of this project is that in recent years the industry group has taken a stand against public information by denying the public access to its research findings, the Web site reported.

I talked to two friends today who work at the government research center in North Carolina. One said this is one of the several “absurd, 11th-hour moves that the political appointees are trying to get started before a new president takes over the White House.”

Her colleague added that many of the scientists are outraged.

“I know we are having budget problems like the rest of the government research labs, but to sell out integrity for a few hundred thousand dollars of industry money means we should hang a large red light over the door and just admit what we are,” she said.

Here is a link to Microwave News story.

Nice reporting.

September 10, 2008

Are asbestos victims fleeced by lawyers?

Filed under: Asbestos,Diacetyl,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 11:08

The late night comics roll their eyes talking about settlements of class action suits where the plaintiffs get pennies and the lawyers walk with millions. For many, this legal larceny engenders the use of horse whips or water boards on the distinguished members of the bar.

But up close, there is very little funny about this practice.

Nevertheless, it’s happening again. This time, the subject of the litigation is invisible fibers of asbestos that contaminates hundreds of millions of tons of vermiculite insulation stuffed in the walls and ceilings and attics of homes throughout North America.

W.R.Grace, which mined and sold potentially lethal Zonolite insulation, has agreed to pay $6.5 million Canadian under a settlement proposed by lawyers named by the Canadian version of the U.S. bankruptcy court. Court documents show half of the money — $3.25 million — will be paid to the Canadian lawyers who put the deal together, including a lawyer in Delaware who gets $360,000 for filing the papers with the U.S. bankruptcy court.

What this means is that if 400,000 Canadian homeowners — the would-be plaintiffs in this class action suit — sign up for money to decontaminate their homes, they could each pocket $8.12. Typically, asbestos removals from a home can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars because many contractors view the removal of hazardous material as a pot of gold.

Tremolite asbestos fiber

Meanwhile, south of the border, our government estimates that 15 million to 35 million homes contain dangerous material from the now closed vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont.

The real tragedy is that very few homeowners on either side of the border have a clue that their homes may be contaminated. Even fewer know that a deadline of Oct. 31 has been set for homeowners to notify the bankruptcy court that their homes are contaminated.

EPA promised to get the warning out years ago.

In attempting to declare a “public health emergency” in Libby, the agency promised to “blanket” television shows and the nation’s hardware and home improvement chains with warnings about Zonolite. When the White House blocked the emergency notification, our environmental protectors in EPA headquarters forgot about the warning.

So today, most homeowners have no clue of the risk they face when their kids play in the attic or mom hooks up an exhaust fan or the cable guy strings his wire.

In repeated tests, government scientists and Grace’s own experts have shown that the slightest disruption of the fluffy, nickel-size pieces of black, tan and gold tinted Zonolite released millions of the asbestos fibers that have caused asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Raven Thundersky

If you question the toxicity of the asbestos that has decimated Libby, just check the town’s cemetery or talk to Raven Thundersky in Winnipeg. Her parents and three sisters died from cancer and asbestosis from exposure to Zonolite in the family’s government-built home on a remote First Nation reservation at Poplar River, Man.

In Washington state in 2000, Spokane lawyer Darrell Scott filed the nation’s first Zonolite insulation suit on behalf more than 100,000 homeowners. But his efforts — to get Grace to publish warnings of the danger — and those of scores of other lawyers suing on behalf of thousands of people across the country sickened or killed from exposure to the Grace product were derailed when the 150-year-old company filed bankruptcy in April 2001.

This is an appropriate point to urge you not to set up the “Kill the lawyer” billboards.

While there obviously are greedy ones out there that embarrass their own profession, we would be worse off without the efforts of many lawyers. It’s painfully apparent that government will not or cannot protect its citizens from corporate shenanigans. Lawyers � private practitioners, those with advocacy groups and even a bunch carrying federal ID cards – make them pay attention.

Think about it. Flavor manufacturers knew that the diacetyl in their butter flavoring was sickening their own workers and those in microwave popcorn plants. Most did nothing until they were dragged into court.

The same can be said for slipshod pharmaceutical producers, makers and users of benzene and scores of other chemicals and, of course, our friends in Columbia, Md., W.R. Grace.

The tens of thousands of pages of Grace documents, on which the P-I based its investigation and which the Justice department used to support the nation’s largest environmental crime indictments, showed that Grace knew their miners and their families in Libby and their workers at hundreds of vermiculite processing plants were at risk. And kept it secret.

Nothing happened until a small law firm in Montana began suing the worldwide company on behalf of people who died because of its actions.

A federal grand jury issued criminal indictments against Grace and seven of its top bosses. It is hoped that the trial will finally begin in late winter.

While some of these lawyers are actual heroes, so are many of EPA’s frontline troops � the emergency responders, investigators, toxicologists, physicians and scientists. They have busted their tails since the Seattle P-I first reported on the tragedy in Libby in 1999. Many stood up not only to Grace and the politicians in their pockets, but also to the political appointees in their own agency and the White House itself.

Some EPA regions are more involved than others. The regional offices in Denver and Seattle led the way. Chicago was right in the midst of it with its investigation of Grace’s large Zonolite expansion plants in Minneapolis.

Even today, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the EPA gang from Chicago is back in town testing for asbestos in the air and dust in 30 to 50 homes. Between 2000 and 2004 EPA had removed contaminated soil from the yards of 268 homes near the plant.

Terry Thiele, who lived around the corner from the plant during his childhood, told the paper that he and his siblings and mother all have asbestosis to some degree and that his father died from mesothelioma.

“My whole family has lung X-rays that look like patchwork quilts because of all the scarring” from the fibers, Thiele told Star reporter Tom Meersman.

In Spokane, Scott told me: “People still don’t know. There are probably 120,00 to 140,000 homeowners in Washington alone with Zonolite in their homes and most don’t know it.”

He is concerned that the Oct, 31 deadline imposed by Grace will pass unknown to millions across the country. He has asked Grace bankruptcy Judge Judith Fitzgerald to consider his class action filed in 2000 and to allow him to file on behalf of tens of thousands of Washington homeowners who own or occupy property containing the Zonolite insulation.

Fitzgerald has yet to rule on his motion.

Here are some links with more information:

Here is the court’s notice of the October deadline.

This is EPA’s page on asbestos and here’s more than anyone would want to know about vermiculite.

NEW For those of you who asked for a phone number of a human who might know something about the issue, for years, EPA’s Public Information Center in Seattle at (206) 553-1200 has been fielding questions on Zonolite insulation and the same vermiculite in garden products and potting soil.

September 8, 2008

Meat-eaters cause environmental mayhem

Filed under: Environmental health issues,Food - good, bad, weird — Andrew Schneider @ 10:28

Vegetarians are just going to love this one.

The United Nation’s chief climate expert, Rajendra Pachauri, says that the tasty beef roast on your dining table is the source of many of the world’s environmental woes, in particular those involved in the dangerous warming of the planet’s climate.

Give up meat – at least for one day a week – and we can help to save the Earth, Pachauri says.

Nor is Pachauri, the chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, alone in his complaints. A host of campaigners have united to condemn meat-eaters for bringing environmental mayhem to the world, Robin McKie and Caroline Davies from London’s Guardian Newspaper reported yesterday.

‘The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future,” warned Worldwatch Institute and listed the harm we meat eaters cause to deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease.

I wonder whether eating your meat rare is better for the environment?

The Brits, of course, say the United States is the biggest offender, backing the charge with this comment from Raj Patel, author of “Stuffed and Served.”

“The average meat eater in the US produces about 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide more than a vegetarian every year. That’s because animals are hungry and the grain they eat takes energy, usually fossil fuels, to produce,” he says.

The top UN climatologist explain the value of his one-day-a-week meat ban:

“In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity,” said Pachauri, an Indian economist and a vegetarian. “Give up meat for one day [a week] initially and decrease it from there,” he added.


September 6, 2008

Strong opinions over latest popcorn suit

Filed under: Diacetyl,Food additives,Food poisoning,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 09:15

The fireworks on the convention floor of both parties’ nominating conventions seems fairly tame when compared with the nasty sparring over a story the P-I ran Friday. It was about a man in Spokane who has severe lung disease and doctors say it was because he ate several bags of popcorn each day.

Larry Newkirk runs a building supply company and gets around OK, he says, for a 54-year-old guy whose lungs move just about half of the volume of air that they should and, apparently did, before he began eating four to six bags of popcorn a day.

Larry Newkirk

In the P-I story on the suit filed on his behalf Thursday in federal court in Spokane, Newkirk talked about spending two or three years being bounced from physician to physician and specialist to specialist as he tried to determine why his lungs were failing.

Some of the scores of readers who phoned or e-mailed me to “share” their poignant opinions on Newkirk’s suit, questioned the why in the medical mystery behind his illness.

While the disease he has – bronchiolitis obliterans – is uncommon, misdiagnosing it isn’t. I base that on nine years of interviewing sick workers in popcorn plants, flavoring factories and other manufacturing sites – huge and mom and pop – where synthetic butter flavoring was used. The similarity that all had – beyond being exposed to vapors from flavoring agents – was that almost to a person, they were misdiagnosed with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia or excessive smoking.

Almost all the cases that were spotted were diagnosed by occupational medicine specialists, and then only physicians like Drs. Allen Parmet in Kansas City, David Egilman in Massachusetts and Phil Harber at UCLA, who knew what to look for.

Parmet diagnosed the illness in Newkirk, and last September, Cecile Rose at Denver’s National Jewish respiratory center identified what was sickening Wayne Watson, who ate about two to three bags of popcorn daily.

Lectures have been given at many medical conferences and some journal articles have been written, but most of the docs who have actually diagnosed the sometimes fatal disease believe a large number of cases are being missed.

Diacetyl has been, and continues to be, used to give thousands of food products a buttery taste. The disease is believed to be a principle cause of the severe respiratory illness producing obstruction of the small airways and diminished ability to breathe.

Many of you were angered and puzzled that Newkirk’s lawyers were suing Shopko Stores, the grocery chain where he bought the popcorn. No, I can’t tell you why and yes, I agree they, and most other merchants, can only trust the word of their suppliers that the food they sell is safe. And, I guess that ConAgra, which produced all the Act II popcorn that Newkirk consumed, might make that same argument.

It is unlikely that this argument can easily be made by Bush Boake Allen, International Flavors and Fragrances, Givaudan Flavors Corp., Symrise and several other flavoring manufacturers that the suit said were yet to be named.

Court documents show that most of these companies knew the potential danger of diacetyl or should have. Almost all of them, or the companies they purchased – have been sued by workers in popcorn plants, flavoring users and, in some cases, their own workers, all of whom allege that their disease was caused by the butter flavoring.

In December, the P-I reported on its investigation of diacetyl in butter products and cooking oils and found that professional cooks could be exposed to high levels of the toxic vapors. But some major manufacturers say that diacetyl has been removed from their cooking products. Nevertheless, some kitchen workers continue to say they’re worried.

Finally, several of those expressing views were almost rabid over the fact that anyone would consume six bags of popcorn each night. However, the photograph of Larry that we ran with the story clearly counters the assumptions of some that he was an enormous couch potato, who deserved what he got.

Some of the commenters shared tales of their own popcorn diet and told of significant weigh loss. Nutritionalists also weighed in with strong opinions on America’s most popular snack food.

I like it, but I cook it on the stove.

If this suit ever does get into court, it will be interesting.

September 5, 2008

Alfalfa spouts sicken 13 in Wash., Ore.

Filed under: FDA,Food poisoning,Food Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 14:44

Reports of 13 cases of Salmonella Typhimirium infection in Oregon and Washington have been inked to the consumption of raw alfalfa sprouts.

The Food and Drug Administration said that Sprouters Northwest, Inc. of Kent is recalling its alfalfa sprouts, onion sprouts, and salad sprouts because they may be linked to the recent outbreak of Salmonellosis.

The recalled sprouts were distributed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alasks in retail stores and through wholesale produce suppliers and, according to the FDA include all Sprouters Northwest brand sprouts “best by” date of 9/17/08 or earlier.

The company could not be reached for information on which retail stores handled their products.

Sprouters Northwest, Inc. says it is working closely with state officials and federal agencies to determine the cause of this problem and what steps can be taken to combat it.

Salmonella Typhimiriumis an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which maybe bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e. infected aneurysms), endocarditis (swelling of the lining of the heart) and arthritis.

The FDA warns that individuals who may have experienced any of the above symptoms after eating any of the recalled products should contact their health care provider.

Consumers who have purchased any of these items are urged to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund. Wholesalers / retailers should remove the product from sale, cease distribution, and arrange for product return.

Questions can be directed to the company at 253-872-0577.

September 4, 2008

Popcorn eater has lungs destroyed

Filed under: Diacetyl,Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food poisoning — Andrew Schneider @ 16:57

For the second time in this country, a popcorn eater claims his lungs were destroyed by the fumes from butter flavoring released when he microwaved several bags of popcorn each day.

A suit was filed late today in federal court in Spokane on behalf of Larry Newkirk, who has been diagnosed with a rare and often fatal lung disease lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung.” This disease has sickened hundreds of workers in microwave popcorn plants and other factories using the butter flavorng diacetyl and other chemical flavor agents.

He sued Conagra Foods, which made the popcorn; stores that sold it; and companies that made flavoring for the popcorn.

The Missouri law firm of Humphrey, Farrington & McClain brought the lawsuit. The firm for the past eight years has handled suits on behalf of scores of workers in microwave popcorn plants in the Midwest whose lungs were damaged or destroyed by exposure to high level of the chemical flavoring agent.

Newkirk is only the second consumer to claim he has been injured by cooking popcorn at home.

“Eating the popcorn is not what’s at issue,” said Steven Crick, who is Newkirk’s attorney.

Last year, a man in Denver was the first consumer to be diagnosed with the disease.

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