A barbed tragedy is lodged in Libby

  You remember asbestos: It used to be the hottest little insulator around. For years we crammed it into buildings and warships, wrapped it around water pipes and brake pads, wove it into fireproof clothing and flame-resistant drapes. Then we found out how toxic it was: one microscopic fiber in the lung, so the legend goes, and suddenly you're at risk for asbestosis, lung cancer and other lethal consequences.


Whether the actual danger point was one fiber per lung or 5 million per cubic foot, we started getting rid of the stuff as fast as we could, spending billions on cleanup and control - not to mention product liability and litigation. Unfortunately for many victims, mainly asbestos workers, those measures came too late; while we were scrambling to clear homes and schools of the materials they had provided for us, disease was already taking its incremental, irreversible toll on their bodies.


It was in the dignity of such company, last spring, that I witnessed the closing arguments of an asbestosis case tried against the W.R. Grace corporation in Libby, Mont. Despite the eloquence of lawyers on both sides, in that courtroom the most telling statement was the occasional cough that punctuated the proceedings, a sharp and sudden reminder of the injured lungs in attendance.


To the untrained ear an asbestos cough sounds a lot like any other cough. For such a deadly thing, you might expect a basso profundo rumble or a bone-rattling tsunami that sends out Richter waves in every direction. But death, like evil, is capable of great subtlety, and what sounds like the end of a nasty cold can, in fact, suggest a much more certain end. Like so much about asbestos, what seems merely unpleasant on the surface can get outright ugly, the deeper you go.


Ask Edie Finstad, whose husband, Jerry, brought the recent case to court; he has five, maybe 10 years to live, and they will not be easy years. Ask the town of Libby, Mont., the site of the vermiculite plant where Finstad once worked. Under the management of the Zonolite corporation and later, W.R. Grace, untold numbers of citizens were exposed to toxic levels of asbestos dust; so far, 92 are known dead in Libby. Hundreds more, including Jerry Finstad, have been diagnosed with serious lung disorders.


If this were mere accident, it would be tragedy enough. But this particular tragedy is barbed, not unlike the asbestos fiber that remains lodged in the body long after other particles are coughed out. For one thing, the plant didn't actually produce asbestos; it was just a waste product that the corporation never found a way to sell. Second, though Finstad only worked in the mill for two years, it was enough to help disable him three decades later. Third, there are asbestosis victims in Libby who never worked a day at the plant; some were family members exposed to dust brought home on the workers' clothes, and others may have inhaled the fibers as children, playing on ore piles outside the plant.


Finally and most painfully, this jury deemed the company more than negligent in its treatment of this worker; by ordering punitive as well as compensatory damages, the Finstad verdict found fraud and/or malice in the corporation's failure to protect its employees from the hazards - known even in the 1960s - of asbestos exposure.


Tragedy enough, one might think, that even one man's health could have been sacrificed so. But by W.R. Grace's own records, at one point over 90 percent of all longtime workers were known to have abnormal chest X-rays.


According to one expert, that's the highest published rate of disease in any workforce in the world, ever.


There's another barb on this tragic hook: Congress is now debating passing a law that would all but prevent injured workers like Jerry Finstad from taking their cases to court, where they can win punitive damages.


Called the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act, it would lift a burden from the legal system, now facing 30,000 new asbestos cases each year.


On the surface, the bill doesn't sound so bad: The "truly sick' - a definition attacked by some doctors as "exclusionary" and "barbaric' - get prompt and fair compensation for their injuries; opportunistic lawyers and clients are sent elsewhere to grub for their millions; courts are freed from a massive and growing caseload.


There's just one little thing that sticks in my chest, though, and that's the message that corporations can wind up somehow above the law - but only if their wrongdoing is great enough. That's the final barb, as subtle as it is lethal. And once it's in our system, like that first asbestos fiber, we'll never get it out.


'Asta Bowen is a teacher and writer in rural Montana.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and 'Asta Bowen