November 03, 2002 - Asbestos diseases wait to attack

In 1983, as a teenage dad, Tony Coleman worked six dusty days a week as a mechanic in South Euclid. Not even taking time to change clothes after work, Coleman raced home to his girlfriend, where their baby greeted him, chubby arms raised. The new dad gathered him up like a flower. He read to the boy, fed and bathed him. He fears now that he poisoned him, too. David Coleman, who turned 19 in September, is dying from a frightening cancer that lawyers trace to his dad's job fixing brakes lined with asbestos. The fiber is the only known cause of the disease. His is the latest tragic chapter in the sad, unceasing saga of asbestos.

Although asbestos all but disappeared from American industry more than 30 years ago, the one-time wonder mineral is still killing people, crippling industry and paralyzing court dockets. A new generation of Americans who never worked with asbestos but who were exposed at home or school are among the more than 5,000 who die from asbestos-related cancer each year. Some have discovered that the seeds of their disease were planted innocently and long ago in a laundry room, while shaking asbestos dust from clothes, or in a basement, helping dad fix the furnace.

Asbestos is wreaking havoc on courts struggling with lawsuits against not only the companies that produced and distributed it, but also firms that used products containing it. More than 200,000 asbestos lawsuits jam dockets coast-to-coast and name 6,000 defendants. In Cuyahoga County, 34,000 claims monopolize the time of two judges brought out of retirement. Because of the glut of asbestos lawsuits - many filed by people who were exposed to asbestos but are not yet ill - some of the sickest victims will die before their cases are resolved.

The burden of paying asbestos claims has sucked billions from thousands of otherwise-healthy companies, pushing 62 into bankruptcy - more than 20 since Jan. 1, 2000. Although most reorganized and still operate, a few went out of business. Asbestos bankruptcies are bad for almost everyone, said former Judge James McMonagle, trustee for the fund that pays workers injured by products manufactured by Eagle-Picher in Cincinnati. They delay compensation for those suffering from asbestos-related disease and waste limited assets on lawyers, he said. For employees, they threaten jobs and retirement plans.

So far, asbestos has cost American companies and their insurers a staggering $54 billion to settle and fight cases. Some experts estimate the final bill will exceed $275 billion, more than the combined cost of 9/11's terror attacks, Enron and Hurricane Andrew. The cost has been so high that manufacturers and the children and widows of injured workers have begged Congress to intercede. But the never-ending asbestos crisis poses thorny political questions for lawmakers twice challenged by the U.S. Supreme Court to find a legislative solution.

From 1995 through 2000, the most recent years for available statistics, 350 Ohioans died of mesothelioma, a disease that is said to be rare. Related cancers have killed thousands more. While asbestos is no longer widely used in the United States and Congress is considering a complete ban, doctors find hundreds of new cases of mesothelioma every year. David Coleman's doctors found his while fixing a hernia in his belly. He was 15 and a freshman soccer star, dreaming of a pro career.

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