andrew schneider investigates

March 31, 2009

New technique uses color and 3-D to identify asbestos-caused disease faster and more accurately.

Traditional x-ray

Traditional x-ray

Over the years I have been seated in scores of hearing rooms and courtrooms – from worker’s comp cases to the ongoing W.R. Grace criminal trial – watching physicians trying desperately to explain to jurors that this or that gray blur on the X-ray clearly shows disease in the lung.

They’re almost always followed immediately by doctors paid by the defense insisting that the same vague shadows are benign.
But the difficulty of accurately reading x-rays and CT-scans is of even greater importance when physicians are trying to determine the cause of a patient’s illness.

Dr. Michael Harbut

Dr. Michael Harbut

Color has finally come to the murky gray world of scans, x-rays and chest radiography, and workers exposed to asbestos, coal dust, silica, beryllium and other heavy metal are among those with lung diseases who may immediately benefit.

This past weekend, Dr. Michael Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Mich. gave the world its first peek at the new radiographic technology.
The announcement was made at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s annual conference in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

It was the ideal audience before which to unveil the technology. The 200-plus in attendance were physicians, public health specialists, nurses, patients and family members of those who have died from asbestos-related disease both in the U.S. and abroad.

This process allows “us to visualize lesions caused by asbestos exposure in three dimensional detail and often at a much earlier stage than that of the current standard radiographic techniques,” said Harbut, who has decades of experience in diagnosing and treating asbestos-related illness.

New technique

New technique

As Harbut flashed through slides, which vividly showed the ease of identifying lung disease with the 3-D, color technology, he spoke of the benefits of the new approach. In addition to earlier diagnoses, he said that the technology permits differentiation between patients with scarring on the lungs and other diseases and assists in determining why some people have uncontrolled, unrelenting pain.

Harbut worked with Dr. Carmen Endress, Associate Professor of Radiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, who developed the technology.

Harbut explained that the new diagnostic tool could also have a significant public-health impact.

“If we can identify the ‘sentinel’ or first cases of asbestosis or lung cancer at an early stage, then we can help identify asbestos exposures in places where it might not have previously been suspected,” said Harbut, who is also chief of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Wayne State University.

Furthermore, the use of the new chest radiography in the identification of the abnormalities could help to reduce the death rate from asbestos-related diseases, Harbut said. The technology also may explain the disparity in pain levels between those suffering from lung cancer and those with mesothelioma. The enhanced view of the abdominal cavity shows contact with the rib cage that could significantly increase the level of pain suffered by those with mesothelioma.

Dr. Endress added, “It’s my sincere hope that with this new approach and enhanced technology we will help reduce the death rate caused by asbestos-related diseases, reduce the suffering by patients and their loved ones, and make a significant contribution to medicine.”

The word of the new technology will soon be spread throughout the medical community as Harbut and Endress have five journal articles waiting to be published.

This is not the first major medical advance by the Karmanos Cancer Institute. The center, which is located in downtown Detroit, is heavily involved in both clinical and basic research on asbestos-related cancers and has been credited with several major accomplishments in the diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma.

March 28, 2009

I’m from the government and I’ll never lie to you. Happy 30th birthday – TMI

Filed under: Government & corporate wrong-doing,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 16:01

Thirty years ago today, on March 28, 1979, at 10:55 a.m, some 6 hours and 55 minutes after the sudden shut down of the TMI-2 reactor, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor William Scranton issued this statement: “The Metropolitan Edison Company has informed us that there has been an incident at Three Mile Island, Unit #2.  Everything is under control.  There is and was no danger to public health and safety.”

That was a lie.

At least 30 percent of the reactor’s core had melted and slumped to the bottom of the  the reactor pressure vessel.  That the vessel didn’t rupture was a lucky turn of events because,  had it ruptured, the core would have dropped to the floor of the reactor building, creating conditions where there could be no assurance that  a catastrophic radioactivity release could be prevented.

Three days after the accident began NRC officials were debating the likelihood  of  this worst case scenario; some believed disaster was in the offing and others argued that the danger had passed.   I reported that fact for The Associated Press and was promptly denounced as fabricator and a fool by Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, Dick Thornburg.

Three Mile island photo courtesy Blain Roberts

Three Mile island photo courtesy Blain Roberts

Notwithstanding ensuing multiple investigations by a presidential commission, government agencies and congressional committees, much remains unknown about critical events associated with the accident.  One thing though is clear:  During the early hours of the accident a catastrophe was a lot closer than was known by government regulators or the public.  And by the time the regulators had before them the information indicating the nature of what had happened, the danger had largely passed, even though, at the time, the experts disagreed on whether this was so.

For those of you who weren’t born yet, or who slept through those frightening  days in late March  weeks in March and April, here is a link to today’s edition of the Casco Bay Observer.

Don’t let its pastoral name fool you. The newsletter  is written by Dr.  Henry Myers, a physicist with degrees from MIT and Caltech, who was the chief scientist for former Rep. Mo Udall’s ball-busting investigative committee that watched over the NRC and other issues that glowed in the dark.  Henry was there for it all and if you care about truth in government, read what he has to say

Casco Bay Observer

March 28,  2009

TMI + 30

On Wednesday, March 28, 1979 at 10:55 a.m, some 6 hours and 55 minutes after the sudden shut down of the TMI-2 reactor,  Pennsylvania Lt. Governor William Scranton issued this statement:

The Metropolitan Edison Company has informed us that there has been an incident at Three Mile Island, Unit #2.  Everything is under control.  There is and was no danger to public health and safety.

The incident occurred due to a malfunction in the turbine system.  There was a small release of radiation to the environment.

All safety systems functioned properly. …

On Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. Lt Governor Scranton issued an update:

Begin indent, begin different font

The situation is more complex than the company first led us to believe.  We are taking more tests, and at this point, we believe there is still no danger to public health.

Metropolitan Edison has given you and us conflicting information. ….

On Thursday, March 29,  unaware of data indicating melting of the core,  the NRC chairman  assured anxious and skeptical members of the House of Representatives Interior Committee that there had been no melting of fuel.  He estimated that there has been a small amount of fuel damage ( “perhaps about one percent of the fuel in the core” ) in the form of cracks in the  tubes that contained the uranium pellets.  (On May 9, 1979, Victor Stello, then chief of the NRC’s Division of Operating Reactors, told congressional investigators, that with respect to the NRC’s March 28 and March 29 reports on percentage of fuel damage, “I do not know why anybody would be guessing at the percent of failed fuel.”)

On Friday, March 30,  the NRC commissioners learned that the accident had been much more severe than they had previously believed.    NRC staff told the commissioners that the staff  had that morning  learned of evidence that at about 1:50 p.m on Wednesday  a hydrogen explosion had occurred in the TMI-2 reactor building.  The report of an explosion plus data indicating a continuing presence of hydrogen in the pressure vessel pointed to severe core damage and the possibility of further explosions that might lead to a large off-site release of radioactivity.  Talk then centered on the situation being one that safety systems “never had been designed to accommodate, and …. the best estimate (is that it is) deteriorating slowly, and the most pessimistic estimate is (that it is) on the threshold of turning bad.”   There then followed  indeterminate discussion of whether  the state’s evacuation plan should be executed.

On Saturday, March 31, Commission concern focussed on the likelihood of disaster.  Late in the day, the perception of danger peaked.   By mid-day Sunday,  April 1, a consensus had developed that  a catastrophe was not in the offing and  that it was safe for President Carter to tour  the control room.     Meanwhile,  controlled radioactivity releases from the plant, words of caution from Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh,  press reports rooted in the NRC commissioners’ discussions,  and rumors of explosions and meltdowns caused a major exodus from the TMI/Harrisburg area.

The accident triggered numerous investigations including several by the NRC, by a presidential commission, by disparate congressional committees and by journalists and book writers.  Some of the latter, including one by the NRC’s designated  historian, were off the wall.  Notwithstanding that the extensive scrutiny left critical questions dangling, the inquiries in toto did reveal a particularly noteworthy aspect of the  matter:  there had occurred a significant number of episodes that beforehand would have been deemed by the nuclear industry and NRC regulators  not credible,  the stuff of anti-nuclear hype.

Among  a-priori implausible events was the failure of the NRC to respond to warnings that operators would be confused by  a malfunction like that which set the stage for disaster at TMI-2.  One such event was at the Davis-Besse reactor that began as did the March 28 TMI accident.  Another was a safety analysis by a TVA engineer of a TMI-like reactor being purchased by TVA.   Had these precursors been addressed, the TMI-2 operators would probably have realized that water was flowing out of the reactor pressure vessel through a stuck open valve and they would have known what to do to stop the flow and to restore cooling prior to the occurrence of fuel damage.

Prior to the TMI accident, plant workers falsified leak rate calculations; this  resulted in the failure to repair a leaking valve which later played a primary role in causing the accident and the operators’ failure to perceive what was happening.

For the accident’s first 2  hours and 18 minutes,  the operators did not recognize that water was flowing from the pressure vessel through the previously leaking but now stuck open valve,  leaving the highly radioactive reactor core inadequately cooled.   At approximately 6:20 a.m., an arriving shift supervisor perceived the problem; he instructed an operator to close another valve near the one that was stuck open.   This stopped the flow of water from the reactor.  But it was too late. Before cooling was restored,  fuel temperatures rose to the melting uranium oxide point.  A  substantial portion of  the 100 tone reactor core had liquefied and slumped into the bottom of the pressure vessel which fortunately maintained its integrity.

While the greatest danger existed during the accident’s first hours on March 28, it was, as noted above, not until March 30 that NRC Commissioners learned that the event was much more serious than they had previously believed.  In days, weeks and months following the accident,  information emerged indicating that on March 28 control room instruments and other data indicated that the fuel had been severely damaged, a situation that TMI’s managers were required to report immediately to the NRC.  Instead of  passing on this data to State and Federal officials,  however, plant managers  made misleading statements, creating the impression that the accident was substantially less severe and the situation more under control that what the managers themselves believed and what was in fact the case.  While the failure to report accurately was a clear and serious violation of  then existing NRC regulations, the NRC staff took no action against the responsible managers, dismissing and obfuscating the matter with Alice-in-Wonderland distinctions  between “knowing” and “willful” withholding of information.

For those who see TMI as a demonstration of the great safety built into the nuclear technology, there is another way of looking at the story.   Had the cards fallen more favorably,  the fact of a stuck open valve would have been recognized and dealt with early on and the event  would have gone virtually unnoticed by the press and public at large.  On the other hand, had the cards  fallen less favorably (with another hour or two, in addition to the 2+ that  passed prior to a manager noting that fluid was flowing from the reactor through the stuck open valve), the core would have fallen through the pressure vessel into the reactor building which was not designed to keep radioactivity from escaping into the plant’s surroundings.  It is anyone’s guess as to whether in such circumstances there would have been a massive release of radioactivity with consequences of a kind that the industry and NRC contended had a probability of occurrence that was on the order of that of meteor strikes.

March 25, 2009

The use of nanotechnology in food and packaging soars enormously, but Europe beats the U.S. when it comes to demanding safety in using the technology.

Filed under: Nanotechnology,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 11:39

Food scientists that I’ve interviewed recently say that every major manufacturer of food products in the U.S. has either its own in-house team evaluating the use of nanotechnology or has contracted with outside experts for the knowledge.

The race is on to create these manmade nanoparticles – the size of atoms and molecules – and modify them to enhance the safety, taste, color, texture, nutritional value and shelf life of food.

Many food scientists are working on nanoparticles that will kill microbes that spoil or taint food, and I’m told that at least three labs in Europe and Japan are reportedly pursuing similar technology to signal the presence of salmonella, listeria and even E.coli.

fda-logo

My acquaintances in the Food and Drug Administration and on various Congressional committees say the government is doing little or nothing to ensure the safety of this technology.

I was at a conference two years ago when Mitchell Cheeseman, then-deputy director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, said the agency needed help in identifying potential safety concerns from nanotech food additives and dietary supplements. One researcher in the food additive office told me today “not much has happened because the nanotech wheel is not squeaking.”

The rest of the world appears to be taking it seriously.

For instance, food products using nanotechnology will not be permitted for sale in Ireland until the risks to consumers is better known, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recently told our FDA.

Just this week, the European Parliament called for caution to be used before food being produced using nanotechnology processes marketed.

According to a statement from the European Parliament, the European Food Safety Authority has been ordered to ensure the safety of all food produced with nanotechnology processes, and “specific risk assessments” must be approved and completed before the products can be sold.

In addition, the organization ordered labeling instructions that I won’t live long enough to see in the U.S.

They require that: “all ingredients present in the form of nanomaterials shall be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients. The names of the ingredients shall be followed by the word ‘nano’ in brackets.”

On the other side of the world, Australian food safety activists call for increasing “scant regulations governing the use of potentially harmful nanotechnology in food and food packaging,” reported the Australian Associated Press.

A new report from the consumer group “Choice,” quoted  by the Australian news agency, says an estimated 150 to 600 nanofoods and 400 to 500-nanofood packaging applications are in use around the world.

Nanotechnology involves structures as small as molecules, 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, which can have new and unexpected properties because their small size brings quantum effects into play and their larger relative surface area makes them more reactive.

Choice said there is also a lack of research into how nanoparticles in food react once inside the human body.

The government agency Food Standards Australia New Zealand does not require manufactured nanoparticles to be specifically labeled, the food safety group said.

March 20, 2009

New government study on possible health hazards from nanoparticles shows much more research is needed and quickly.

Filed under: Nanotechnology,Public health legislation,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 13:08

Those who care about public health and fear that our government isn’t paying enough attention to the potential hazards spawned by the massive explosion of nano technology have something to cheer. But also something that shows that a lot more research is needed into the new technology — and quickly.

The comfort should come from the knowledge that scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have completed the agency’s second study into the health effects of nanomaterial. The concern lies in the fact the research shows that the material moved easily from inside the lungs of test animals into the pleura, which is the tissue that surrounds the lungs.nioshicn

The findings are the first to demonstrate that carbon nanotubes aspirated by laboratory mice can actually migrate from the tiny structures in the lung called alveoli, which are critical for gas exchange, through the lungs to the pleura.

“This is important because the pleura is the tissue that can develop a form of cancer, malignant mesothelioma, after asbestos exposure, and multi-walled carbon nanotubes are durable fiber-like particles that share many features with asbestos fibers,” Dr. Ann Hubbs, one of the four scientists on the project told me today.

Research into commercial applications of nanoparticles is being pushed at an intensity never seen with any other technology, but examination of the health and safety implications to workers and the public has lagged significantly, especially in the U.S.

What worries many who have studied the new technology is that because of their infinitesimal size, nanoparticles can and do pass through the body’s traditional barriers and defense mechanisms. They are easily transported through the bloodstream, respiratory and gastrointestinal pathways into all organs, the brain and even individual cells.

Add to this the fact that nanoparticles are often more toxic than traditional products of the same chemical composition that have been used for decades.

There are thousands of unique nanostructures being developed by industry today. The material that the NIOSH team investigated is called multi-walled carbon nanotubes, or MWCNTs. These structures, according to NIOSH, show promise for various applications ranging from creating stronger, more durable building materials to improving cancer therapies.

However, as with other types of engineered nanomaterials, the potential occupational health implications of MWNCTs are not well understood.

In the testing at NIOSH’s Morgantown, W.Va. Laboratory, mice inhaled a small drop of liquid containing the nanotubes in a manner that closely resembles inhalation of the same material suspended in the air, such as an exposure that a worker might encounter.

Other investigators, overseas, have reported inflammation and mesothelioma of the abdominal lining after nanomaterial was injected into the lining of the abdominal cavity.

All of these studies reinforce the need to adopt a rigorous approach to controlling occupational exposures among workers during the production and use of the nanomaterial, NIOSH says.

NIOSH’s pioneering research was presented before the Society of Toxicology this week because of the importance of its findings, but the authors’ stress that the preliminary scientific findings demand that more work be done.

As the only government agency tasked with research on workplace illness and injury, NIOSH is leading the way in health studies on nanotech material.

In addition to Hubbs, who is a veterinary pathologist, the research was conducted by Drs. Vincent Castranova, chief of the Pathology and Physiology Research Branch in the Health Effects Laboratory Division; Hubbs; Dale Porter, a pulmonary toxicologist; and Robert Mercer, a bio-engineer.

For more information, here is a link to a NIOSH document Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology.

For updates Twitter: asinvestigates

March 19, 2009

Court tells Chrysler to back off and allow asbestos victim to be buried; meanwhile the automaker’s PR staff is busy lobbying for billions more from tax-payers.

Filed under: Asbestos,Government & corporate wrong-doing,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 10:21

Harold St. John will finally be buried over the strenuous objections of the Chrysler automotive company.

As if death by mesothelioma wasn’t traumatic enough, the auto giant made the family of the 67-year-old former auto mechanic spend almost two weeks bouncing from court to court before a New Jersey appellate court decided to end the corporation’s heartless interference.

St. John died Feb. 28. On March 4, as his casket was about to be lowered into the ground at graveside services in a Spotswood, N.J. cemetery, a process server who attended the funeral called a halt to the burial and handed the funeral director the court order not to bury the body.

The court said St. John’s body was to be returned to the mortuary. Chrysler and its gang wanted an autopsy performed on the man. The man’s wife objected to the needless procedure on religious grounds.

The St. John’s family had sued the automaker and five related companies claiming that St. John had contracted the deadly cancer from exposure to asbestos while working at his father’s Jersey City auto shop, which was said to be the oldest auto repair shop in the state.

The former mechanic had mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. What was bizarre, was that both sides in the suit had already stipulated that St. John died from that specific disease.

So why force an autopsy?

Another act that highlights the absurdity of Chrysler‘s actions was that they had already obtained a tissue sample from the site of St. John’s mesothelioma, the lung lining,  when he was still alive.

So for two weeks, the family watched the decision on what was going to happen to the body of their husband and father go from superior court to appellate court and back. Finally, on Tuesday, the high court said enough.

Chrysler was not happy, and they were dim-witted enough to say so publicly.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported that Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese said, “We are disappointed with the decision of the New Jersey (appeals court). We are considering our legal options.

“At no time did Chrysler intend any disrespect to the late Mr. St. John or to his family at this difficult time.”

And then he added: “Numerous epidemiological studies have refuted the link between automotive products and asbestos-related disease. We expect to prevail when this matter goes to trial.”

Right. And the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that prove that link don’t count any more?

Dr. David Egilman, an occupational medicine specialist with an extensive background in asbestos-related disease, testified on behalf of the St. John family.

He questions the “purported scientific basis of Chrysler’s rather ghoulish request.” And talks about a cartoon where a man is looking for his keys under a streetlight. Someone who’s helping him search asks where he lost the keys, and the man said on the next block, but added that he was looking here because the light is better.

That’s what Chrysler is trying to do with the autopsy request, Egilman says.

They’d already found the asbestos in the lining of the lung at the site of the disease, but now they want to search inside the lung, so they can report that nothing was found, explains the physician.

“That’s not where asbestos from mesothelioma is found.”

I’ve got a call into the automaker’s lawyers for comment, but don’t hold your breath.

There are thousands of asbestos injury cases brought every year in this country. I really want to know why Chrysler chose this case, at this time, to bring attention to this issue.

Where was Chrysler’s high priced public relations team throughout all of this?

Oh, wait a second. I know. They were in Washington asking Congress for a few more billions of taxpayer money so they can stay in business.

March 18, 2009

It’s the law. Country of origin must be labeled on many food items but thousands still slip through the government net

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Seafood,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 09:29

There was a time when imported food was coveted, a way to impress your neighbors, friends and colleagues with prosciutto from Italy, sea conchs from Chile, stinky cheese from Denmark, eggplant preserve from Greece, snails from France, and the list went on. 

However, now that a good hunk of our food comes from abroad two things have happened. First, the novelty has worn off, with even the most exotic products available at the corner store. But second, some of that intriguing “foreign” food has been bad. Not a lot, but enough to get the attention of shoppers. 

Many consumers don’t even want to buy rice from China, but we can’t blame all the lack of attention to food safety to overseas suppliers. salmon-with-cool-tags

It has been months since the first reports of salmonella poisoning from Georgia peanuts surfaced, and again today I received emails from the FDA warning me of nine additional peanut products to avoid. 

As of Monday, and at long last, the USDA has given food shoppers what they think they want – a country of origin or COOL label on many grocery store products.

The new detailed label is supposed to be affixed to farm-raised shellfish and fish, most poultry, beef, lamb, pork and goat, and almost all perishable fruits, vegetables and nuts.

But as I’ve warned before, the program that will cost between $60 million and $100 million a year to implement, has enormous loopholes which exclude mandatory labeling on thousands of processed foods and mixtures.

For example, mix carrots from Chile with peas from Honduras, and the country of origin need not be revealed. The same applies to chicken or meat that’s breaded, marinated or processed in any way.

The labeling is designed to give consumers more information on where the food they buy comes from, but the government stresses that the new labels do not ensure the quality or safety of the food to which they’re attached. 

However, if the FDA if recalling tomatoes from Mexico or peppers from Guatemala or lettuce from Brazil, the labels would give careful shoppers more information on what to avoid.

Country-of-origin labeling is not new.

Karen Nachay of Food Technology magazine says that almost 80 years ago, the Tariff Act of 1930 required that all manufactured goods imported into the United States list the country of origin.

Getting this labeling law implemented is a complex and sometimes ugly story but Karen’s article does an outstanding job of giving the reader a detailed look at how COOL was stalled, delayed and finally passed, and what it really means to both consumers and the food industry. Here is the link to her fine story. I just wish I had it years ago when I was stumbling to understand the issue.

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March 17, 2009

New DOL boss may really care about workers exposed to lung destroying diacetyl on the job. About time someone in Washington did something.

Yesterday, the newly appointed Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, ordered the agency’s first definitive steps to prevent workers’ exposure to food flavorings chemicals containing diacetyl.

It was Dec. 21, 2007 when I wrote about a study commissioned by my now defunct newspaper which showed that top-selling butter substitutes – cooking oils, sprays and margarines – when heated, release diacetyl vapors. The risk was about non-existent to home cooks, but could present a significant hazard to professional chefs who spend hours a day working over a inadequately vented hot grill.

Fernando Herrera, a former worker at a California flavoring plant has been told that 70 percent of his lungs have been damaged by diacetyl exposure.  Photo by A. Schneider

Fernando Herrera, a former worker at a California flavoring plant has been told that 70 percent of his lungs have been damaged by diacetyl exposure. Photo by A. Schneider

Unions and much of the public heath community was concerned. But, under the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration pretty much ignored orders of Congress and pleas from the occupational medicine experts to develop exposure standards for workers exposed to diacetyl on the job.

The Food and Drug Agency did even less.

The FDA-approved chemical flavoring never went through the comprehensive testing demanded of most food additives because industry ruled that it was “Generally Regarded As Safe,” a designation that shielded it from the scrutiny that safety demands.

I’m not sure how much comfort the shoddy FDA blessing is to the hundreds of popcorn plants workers sicken or killed when their lungs were destroyed by bronchiolitis obliterans which is caused by exposure to the butter flavoring. Scores of workers in other flavoring and food processing companies are also reporting the disease.

“I am alarmed that workers exposed to food flavorings containing diacetyl may continue to be at risk of developing a potentially fatal lung disease. Exposure to this harmful chemical already has been linked to the deaths of three workers,” said Solis.

“These deaths are preventable, and it is imperative that the Labor Department move quickly to address exposure to food flavorings containing diacetyl and eliminate unnecessary steps without affecting the public’s ability to comment on the rulemaking process.”

California Rep. Lynn Woolsey, chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Solis’ action announcement will withdraw a Bush era procedural roadblock to that slowed protections for workers who handle diacetyl.

“This is good news for the thousands of workers who handle this dangerous food flavoring, all who up until now have done so at the risk of their own health,” Woolsey said today.

What Solis did withdraw the question of diacetyl safety from an elaborate multi-step and time consuming process called Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

Without that roadblock, regulations protecting workers can be instituted far more quickly, a labor department lawyer told me late last night. He added, that opportunity for comment from the public and industry is retained.

March 16, 2009

What kind of justice does Libby want from the criminal trial of W.R. Grace?

Filed under: Asbestos,EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing,W.R. Grace,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 21:04

As a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I broke the story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Mont ., 10 years ago.  Tonight, the paper prints its final edition, which means I won’t be able to write about the outcome of the W.R. Grace criminal trial for the newspaper that first revealed what happened to Libby and its people.

I’m going to try to keep up with the trial on this blog. But I thought I’d share with you the final post I wrote for the PI: What the people of northwestern Montana that I’ve spent a decade covering hope they will see coming out of the federal courtroom in Missoula.

* * * * * * * *

Of course I’m sad that Les Skramstad has passed on.

No one should have to suffer the slow suffocation caused by years of sucking in needle-sharp fibers of asbestos that fester until their lungs are too rigid to gulp the air needed to breathe, or they drown in their own fluids.

Les told me that he’d give up a year of his fleeting life just to sit in the front row of hard, wooden benches in Judge Donald Molloy’s courtroom and watch justice delivered to W.R. Grace and five of its former VPs’ and top managers.

Les and EPA criminal investigators

Les and EPA criminal investigators

He just didn’t have that year to trade. And I don’t think the lanky cowboy would be really happy sitting there anyhow. He might have gotten some satisfaction glaring at men who, according to thousands of Grace documents, knew that the miners on Zonolite Mountain – Grace ‘s miners, the men who dragged tainted vermiculite out of the earth – were being exposed to high levels of asbestos and would most likely die because of it.

Les wanted to watch them swing. He anguished over the unbearable knowledge that on his work clothes, he brought that poison from the mine into his home and into the lungs of his wife, Norita, and three of his children. He wanted the death penalty for them, and he offered to build the gallows.

He was standing by the courthouse steps in Missoula on Feb. 7, 2005, when U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer read the indictment. Les sat on a chilled concrete bench beside two EPA investigators who patiently explained what the criminal charges were and why they were filed under the Clean Air Act.

But Les heard what he wanted to hear, that Grace and its gang were going to be held accountable for all the atrocities committed during the 30 years they owned the mine, including allowing thousands of pounds of deadly asbestos fibers to fall on the town.

In Les’ mind and in the minds of others I’ve talked to in the past month, Grace and its executives should be standing trial for homicide.

That doesn’t matter in Molloy’s courtroom. Not only does the Clean Air Act not have provisions for homicide charges, but it also has only been around since 1999. Thus, those accused are only being held accountable for actions after that date.

If convicted of all charges, no one will hang. But they can face years in a federal prison.

Norita did sit in court and watch the beginning, as did Les’ sidekick in the long battle against Grace, Gayla Benefield.

Gayla and Norita outside federal courthouse in Missoula

Gayla and Norita outside federal courthouse in Missoula

Gayla knew there would be no death sentences nor life terms, but she said any time behind bars would be some vindication. Some justice demanded.
She said that as she sat in the courtroom, images gnawed at her soul.  She thought of those back in Libby.

“They had already watched friends, family, coworkers and neighbors struggle for a simple breath. They knew that they would die, not a natural death brought on by old age, but by the slow strangulation that follows exposure to something that they were told nothing about,” she recalled.

As she watched the faces of the five Grace executives, she said she wondered if  they worried about the uncertainly of their futures.

“Even six months confined in a cell without the luxury of normal life must seem frightening to them,” she thought. “They may miss the birth of a beloved grandchild, the graduation of a family member from the university, the funeral of a family member. Some may not survive.

“For once,” Gayla said, “the finest lawyers and all of the money in the world cannot protect them from reality.”

Norita doesn’t talk much. Caught between Les and Gayla, there wasn’t much of an opportunity.

But with some gentle prodding,  she allowed that Les would probably accept the jury’s decision.

“What he needed was justice. That just might  happen,” Norita said.

Dropping her voice to a whisper, she added, “What he really wanted was for Grace to apologize, and I don’t believe any of us will live long enough to see that.”

March 15, 2009

Popcorn flavoring victims dies as jury awards $7.5 million, but government does little to prevent future diacetyl exposure

Ronald Kuiper died last week, just one day before a jury decided that a maker of chemical butter flavoring owed him $7.5 million for destruction of his lungs.

Kuiper was 64 when I interviewed him five years ago, just before doctors confirmed what he told me he already knew – that he had bronchiolitis obliterans, which is also called “popcorn lung.”

Obviously, the jury agreed that it was diacetyl that was killing him when he testified briefly before them.

popcorn0121In the 90s, inhalation of this synthetic butter flavoring had been blamed for destroying the lungs of hundreds of workers in microwave popcorn plants throughout the Midwest. Included was American Pop Corn, the plant in Sioux City, Iowa, where Kuiper worked as a butter-flavor mixer.
The verdict, which took jurors six days to reach, was against Givaudan Flavors Corp. of Cincinnati. Earlier, Kuiper and his wife had also sued three other mega-flavor makers – International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Flavors of North America, Inc. and Sensient Flavors, Inc.

I’m told they paid the Kuipers without going to trial.
Kuiper contacted me after he read articles I’d written in Baltimore for The Sun on sick workers I’d found in flavoring, food processing and other plants across the country where diacetyl is used.

The illness was in its early stages when Kuiper and I spoke, but he was already having respiratory problems and paused often to catch his breath.  Even back then he said it felt like he was suffocating, breathing through a plastic bag.
He told me he was glad I’d reported on what diacetyl was doing to other innocent workers but that he couldn’t understand why the government – OSHA and the Food and Drug Administration – hadn’t tested the safety of the chemical flavoring, which is used worldwide.
There was a minor media frenzy after reports that consumers had contracted bronchiolitis obliterans from inhaling fumes from microwave popcorn they prepared at home – first, on one man and then another who allegedly had the irreversible lung disease.
I’m told a third case is about to go public and that two more consumers, one on each coast, are undergoing medical screening for the same symptoms. All told their physicians that they ate at least four to eight bags of popcorn a day.
America is the world’s largest producer of microwave popcorn, and most of the manufacturers say they have removed the diacetyl from the products. But that’s not enough for unions representing food service workers and cooks. They, along with dozens of scientists, have asked OSHA for emergency safeguards and exposure limits. Congress ordered protective action from OSHA.

Little has happened.
Kuiper died before getting his wish. Neither OSHA nor the FDA have tested the safety of the flavoring. And neither agency restricts or monitors its use even though food scientists estimate that today more than 14,000 individual products use diacetyl for butter flavor.
Kuiper’s lawyer, Kenneth McClain, has settled scores of suits for other popcorn workers for verdicts as high as $20 million.  McClain told the Des Moines Register that more than 300 other diacetyl cases are pending nationwide.
Public health specialists believe if the government fails to control the use of diacetyl, lawyers will be busy for years to come because lives have been destroyed or ended.

For more details, check out the public health wizards gathered around the pump handle at http://thepumphandle.wordpress.com/popcorndiacetyl/

For update, twitter asinvestigates.

March 12, 2009

Grace lawyers still argue that the deadly fiber that has killed hundreds in Libby isn’t asbestos. So what?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 22:03

Until today, I really thought that Judge Donald Molloy’s prediction that the W.R. Grace criminal trial would take four to five months to complete was a bit extreme. I based this on the fact that the testimony of two key government witnesses – On-site Coordinator Paul Peronard and Dr. Alan Whitehouse – came and went far more quickly than anyone anticipated.

Looking at a very tired Dr. Aubrey Miller, who completed his third day on the hot seat today and has been ordered back on Monday for another day in tag-team purgatory, I’m wondering whether five months is enough.

I wonder how Miller, who is now medical adviser on bioterrorism to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and was the senior medical officer with the EPA’s Libby team, compares his grueling 20-hour days as an intern and resident in med school to the day and night sessions he has endured this week on behalf of the government.

I’m heading back to Seattle now and there isn’t much room for my laptop in this snug Horizon Air prop plane, so this will be short.

Grace lawyer David Frongillo continued his questioning of Miller and raised issues that had been debated and fought over long before charges were even filed in this case and had even been the subject of contentious pre-trial rulings from the judge. Namely, what is asbestos?
uncivil-action
The government has said that the vermiculite mine Grace once owned outside Libby was contaminated with asbestos fibers, which miners brought home on their clothes and the mine processing plant spewed over the northwestern Montana town by the ton.

Frongillo took a unique approach to the asbestos question. He asked the judge to permit him to introduce five separate regulations or rules from EPA, OSHA, MSHA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and one federal law passed by Congress.

And then he read a section from each document that identified  “the federal six” — the minerals that the government regulates as asbestos.  He read off: tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite.

He repeated the list four more times and asked Miller if he heard any mention at all of “winchite” or “richterite.”  Grace’s lawyers say the U.S. Geological Survey has determined that those minerals compose 95 percent of the fibers in Libby.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s all asbestos,” Miller said, echoing the views of almost all of the public health experts who have observed the illnesses and death in Libby up close.

Miller’s response was not appreciated by the judge, who warned him, and not for the last time, “listen to the questions and answer them directly.”

For almost 10 years scientists and physicians have fought over which asbestos fibers were responsible for filling Libby’s graveyard.

Frongillo and senior Grace lawyer David Bernick both questioned Miller about a meeting EPA held in conjunction with USGS and 150 of the nation’s leading authorities in 2001 on asbestos mineralogy and health to discuss the identity of Libby asbestos.
It was a contentious gathering – much like Thursday afternoon’s sparring match between Bernick and lead prosecutor Kris McLean. At the conference, geologists from different government agencies disagreed vehemently on what to call the asbestos contaminating Grace’s vermiculite.

One said there were minute amounts of sodium and manganese in the Libby fibers, making them technically richterite. Another said they had found a bit of iron in their sample, so the fiber had to be winchite. Neither of those fibers is regulated by the government.

I dug out a quote that I used in a story about the 2001 meeting that I think summed up what many working in Libby and with its people think about the naming controversy.

Michael Beard, a former senior chemist for EPA for 26 years told his colleagues, “Who cares? You’ve got at least 192 people who died and hundreds more made ill in Libby from what has been diagnosed as asbestos-related diseases. They don’t care whether it’s actinolite, tremolite or buffalo-girl-won’t-you-come-out-tonight.

“Whatever it is, it caused disease. If the fiber isn’t one of the six regulated types of asbestos, the folks in the government have got to realize it can’t just be ignored.”

I want to write more about today, I just need to get off this plane and try to get a transcript of the exact testimony.

So watch for the Twitter at asinvestigates.

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