Asbestos exposure in New York gained attention in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when it emerged that there were 400 tons of the toxic mineral among the pulverized dust and debris of the Twin Towers. However, the state of New York had severe asbestos issues long before 9/11.Find Top Doctors in New York
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In many ways, the history of New York neatly encapsulates the whole story of asbestos’s rise and fall as a “magic mineral.”
The H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company, founded in New York City in 1958, was one of the first companies to use asbestos to manufacture fire-resistant construction materials and insulation products, giving rise to a highly profitable industry.
During World War II, the shipyards of New York consumed asbestos by the ton to insulate and fireproof U.S. Navy ships. During America’s postwar economic boom, factories all over the state kept demand for the toxic mineral high — as long as corporate executives were able to cover up the terrible health consequences of asbestos exposure.
The man most credited for breaking through the cover-up is Dr. Irving Selikoff, who published his findings on asbestos-related diseases while working at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center beginning in the 1960s.
Selikoff’s research led to national safety regulations as well as a deluge of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits against asbestos industry companies.
Johns Manville, the successor of the H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company, created the nation’s first asbestos settlement trust in 1988 in order to save itself from bankruptcy, setting a precedent many liable companies in New York have followed.
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Most New Yorkers who have mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases were exposed to asbestos while on the job. Workers at shipyards, power plants and other types of heavy industry carry some of the highest risks, though occupational asbestos exposure is also a major problem for construction tradesmen, veterans and emergency first responders.
Manufacturers used asbestos in a variety of building materials, from roof shingles and floor tiles to the sealants and adhesives that held them in place. Paper mills used sheets of asbestos felt as drying surfaces. Workers at vermiculite-processing plants also suffered exposure when asbestos-contaminated ore was sourced from Libby, Montana.
Asbestos products endangered pipe fitters and insulation workers at jobsites large and small. Grand Central Station is one high-profile site that was once notoriously rife with crumbling asbestos insulation, but asbestos exposure could just as easily occur in any humble building’s basement or attic.
Many of America’s first powerhouses were built in New York by the Edison General Electric Company, known today as General Electric. For decades, the electricity industry relied on asbestos-containing insulation just as much as the steam-driven industry before it had.
The extensive use of asbestos fireproofing on ships seemed ideal during the mid-20th century, but unfortunately shipbuilders working at sites such as the Todd Shipyards were merely replacing one hazard with another. The use of asbestos at the Brooklyn Navy Yard endangered civilians and service members alike, contributing to the high rate of mesothelioma among U.S. veterans.
When a building burns or collapses, asbestos materials can break down into a highly friable state, leading to the most severe levels of contamination. In many cases, firefighters and other first responders have inhaled asbestos while searching through the wreckage of an old structure.
Following the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, government agencies underestimated the danger caused by the dust cloud that fell over several blocks of Manhattan. As a result, local residents and volunteer rescue workers from across the nation were not adequately warned about the asbestos, heavy metals and other toxins contaminating the dust and debris of the Twin Towers.
In the years since the 9/11 attacks, hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the debris of the Twin Towers have developed health problems such as the “World Trade Center cough” and a variety of cancers, including mesothelioma.
In 2012, mesothelioma was one of the dozens of types of cancer added to the list of conditions covered by the WTC Health Program. In 2015, Congress passed a bill reauthorizing this program for 75 years, in recognition of the long latency period of many diseases caused by toxic exposure.
The New York State Asbestos Law, also known as Industrial Code Rule 56, mandates stricter protections for residents and workers than federal asbestos regulations. The state Department of Labor enforces this law, requiring all work that disturbs asbestos to be done by trained workers following proper abatement and containment procedures. The penalties for noncompliance are costly.
In 2012, for example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Long Island for failing to protect maintenance workers and electricians from asbestos exposure.
OSHA proposed fines of $88,000, and the following year, more than 100 plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit against the coliseum’s management, seeking $1 billion in compensation.
Historically, New York has been a leading state for asbestos litigation. Plaintiffs typically file asbestos claims against one or more companies that knew about the potential dangers of asbestos yet failed to warn workers and consumers.
It is not uncommon for a single asbestos case to list dozens of defendants. While some states have enacted legal and medical restrictions on patients or family members who file asbestos lawsuits, lawmakers in New York ramped up regulations and protections from exposure.
New York also enacted a “two-disease rule” that allows plaintiffs who previously filed a claim for a noncancerous asbestos-related disease to file a second lawsuit if they develop cancer at a later date. This is highly beneficial, because it may take decades for an asbestos-related cancer to develop after the initial exposure to asbestos.
Another benefit to filing in New York is an expedited trial schedule for asbestos plaintiffs. In other states, the legal process may take so long patients die of their illness before their case is heard.
In 2017, the largest single asbestos verdict in New York history was awarded to Marlena and Ed Robaey. Marlena had been diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2012 and then pleural mesothelioma in 2016, caused by secondhand exposure to asbestos-containing parts in the boilers and engines her husband had worked on throughout their marriage.
Though the suppliers of these parts had known of the dangers of asbestos exposure, they had not warned consumers like the Robaeys. Many of the defendants in the lawsuit settled out of court for undisclosed amounts, and the jury ordered the remaining defendants to pay $75 million in compensation for Marlena and Ed’s pain and suffering.
Cancer patients in New York can turn to several organizations for support. Support groups and temporary housing are available through Gilda’s Club (an affiliate of the Cancer Support Community) and Joe’s House. The New York Cancer Foundation and CancerCare Co-Payment Assistance offer financial resources for patients in treatment. The American Cancer Society and American Lung Association also organize local programs and events.
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Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website. He also holds a certificate in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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