As an oncologist, I see the deadly and tragic consequences of exposure to the carcinogen asbestos in my patients who suffer from lung cancer and mesothelioma. I also know all too well the inadequacy of the regulatory system designed to protect workers, as my brother was killed due to unsafe working conditions.

On a personal and professional level, I condemn President Bush’s recent campaign to overhaul the civil justice system by urging Congress to limit the legal rights of workers who have been injured by asbestos.

Bush seeks to limit lawsuits that have “bankrupted a lot of companies” and that awarded money to people he deemed are not “truly sick,” but he offered no specific legislation. Justifying his proposed changes, he said they would benefit those who are “truly sick and denied their day in court.”

This egregious “spin” of promoting supposed “benefits” to current cancer patients will destroy the rights of others. It will allow companies to escape accountability for their misconduct. As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has said, asbestos is not just a “litigation crisis, it’s a disease crisis.”

The toll on workers disabled and killed by asbestos disease and on their families has risen to staggering levels over the last several decades. This is the result of willful practices of manufacturers and employers who withheld information about the hazards of asbestos and did little or nothing to control exposures.

While Bush spoke of ending liability for companies, he did not address the need to ban this deadly substance, or the need for stiffer penalties for employers who expose workers to asbestos.

Although Bush says companies are being bankrupted by asbestos claims, many, in fact, reorganize. Halliburton, the large oil field services and construction company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, is an example. Halliburton sought to limit its legal liabilities from asbestos claims against Dresser Industries, a company that made many products that contained asbestos and which Haliburton, under Cheney, acquired in 1998. Two of Halliburton’s units have emerged from bankruptcy protection after formalizing a $4.7-billion settlement of asbestos claims that could involve more than 400,000 people.

More than 100,000 asbestos claims were filed in 2003 alone. Many more people will develop asbestos-related disease for years into the future. A trust fund that provides victims with fair compensation and that could be replenished to ensure that all meritorious claims are paid is needed. If this cannot be guaranteed, then claimants should be allowed to return to the courts.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is drafting a bill to compensate victims from such a trust fund. Corporations like ExxonMobil and DuPont have announced they will oppose this legislation. Sweeney condemned their decision as “read[ing] the results of the November election as license to ignore the plight of asbestos victims and the responsible efforts of a number of other companies to join in the creation of a national trust fund to guarantee asbestos victims fair compensation for their tragic circumstances.”

The influence of corporations is not limited to the Congress alone. They are now adding judicial nominations to their priority list. John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers and one of Bush’s close Republican friends, announced a multi million-dollar campaign to openly support Bush nominees to the federal court. Their campaign is rooted in issues like “tort reform” and pressing for limits on people’s ability to recover damages (like on asbestos-related disease) from business.

This renewed fight to protect corporations from lawsuits, coupled with the significantly larger Republican majority in Congress, has made asbestos “good business.” For example, profits for asbestos maker USG were up 53 percent for the second quarter of 2004.

The profits gained by stripping sick and dying workers of their legal protections were spent in part to celebrate Bush’s inaugural.

ExxonMobil donated the maximum $250,000 to the inaugural committee and the National Association of Manufacturers sponsored four private events including a “denim and diamonds” evening reception for new members of Congress the night before.

Meanwhile, we families of those who have died from unsafe working conditions quietly continue to mourn our losses. And those who are ill from industrial carcinogen exposure are forced to struggle for fairness and justice while battling devastating diseases.

Donna Puleio Spadaro (dspadaro@usachoice.net) practices medicine in Pennsylvania.

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