Left Behind

Bellefontaine Neighbors residents have lived -- and died -- with asbestos for years. The problem's an open secret, but little has been done.

When Mary Samsel was a little girl, she'd climb into her father's car and they'd drive a mile-and-a-half to the CertainTeed Corporation plant. Located on St. Cyr Road, at the boundary of Bellefontaine Neighbors, Riverview and the city of St. Louis, the CertainTeed plant made asbestos-cement pipe. Scraps were piled on the plant's property, and many Bellefontaine Neighbors residents, among them Mary's family, helped themselves.

Leo Mroczkowski, Mary's dad, used the pipe to decorate his lawn. Neighbors turned the scrap into mailbox posts, lined their driveways with it or dumped it into backyard holes as fill.

What was left of the pile was dumped on Maline Creek's banks, mingling with decades of asbestos slurry, asbestos shingles and raw asbestos. After decades of dumping, the creek's northeast bank towered over the southwest bank and the subdivisions a couple hundred feet away.

Drew Tucker
Maline Creek flooded in 1993, washing asbestos debris over a large area.
Maline Creek flooded in 1993, washing asbestos debris over a large area.

The plant had been around for years before homes, such as the Mroczkowskis', were built. A company named Keasbey & Mattison opened the asbestos-cement plant in the 1920s; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based CertainTeed, which took over in 1962, operated the plant until it closed for good in 1979. Next to CertainTeed was a GAF Corporation plant, which also used asbestos to make roofing materials. Both companies used chrysolite, or white asbestos, but CertainTeed also used crocidolite, or blue asbestos, which is mined in South Africa and Russia and rarely used in the United States.

Mixing asbestos fibers with cement, CertainTeed produced durable pipes used in water and sewer systems. But asbestos' attractive properties -- its strength and resistance to heat and electricity -- came at a price: As far back as the 1920s, researchers found evidence linking exposure to asbestos fibers with lung cancer. By the '70s, the link was indisputable; the federal government banned the use of asbestos in home insulation and lawsuits filed by asbestos workers flooded the courts.

Although all asbestos fibers pose a cancer risk, crocidolite -- the type used at the CertainTeed plant -- is considered one of the most menacing, 100 to 500 times more lethal than white asbestos. Workers exposed to crocidolite faced a high risk of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lung lining that is almost always fatal, usually within a few months of its diagnosis. Workers weren't the only victims, something companies such as CertainTeed quickly learned. Mesothelioma was reported in people who lived near blue-asbestos mines and factory-waste dumps. As early as 1964, the year Mary Samsel turned ten, CertainTeed's confidential memos warned of "neighborhood cases."

Samsel, who had spent her entire childhood in her family's home in the 1200 block of Kilgore Drive, moved out of her parents' house in 1971. She lived her life, became a wife and mother, worked in a doctor's office. At age 47, Samsel was given the diagnosis of lung cancer. Smoking is a known cause -- and Samsel had smoked since she was seventeen.

But something other than smoking appeared to be killing Samsel. When her right lung was removed, doctors at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City found asbestos in the tissue. Sixty percent of the asbestos fibers in the removed lung were crocidolite -- immediately making CertainTeed the likely suspect.

"The blue asbestos was like a thumbprint," says Randy Bono, one of Samsel's lawyers.

In the fall of 2001, Samsel's lawyers sued CertainTeed. According to the lawsuit, filed in St. Louis Circuit Court, not only did Samsel have lung cancer and blue-asbestos fibers in her body, two of her brothers had nonmalignant asbestos scarring in their lungs. But CertainTeed blamed the cigarettes: "Our experts were of the opinion that she did not have an asbestos-related lung cancer and that her lung cancer was caused her smoking history," says Kent Plotner, one of the company's lawyers.

The case went to trial in September. Three days into the case, CertainTeed abruptly agreed to settle the case. The terms are confidential.

Samsel sued because of her childhood exposure to CertainTeed's waste. But a review of documents in the case, including CertainTeed's internal records and government records, shows that others who lived near the plant were exposed to the company's dangerous waste.

The records show:

· CertainTeed officials knew about the asbestos risk to workers and nearby residents long before the plant closed but didn't stop possibly deadly exposure.

· Government-led efforts to clean up asbestos at the seventeen-acre CertainTeed/GAF site failed in 1979, and the most recent efforts to address the problem at Maline Creek left contamination near homes, schools and playgrounds because state officials say it would simply be too dangerous to dig out the asbestos and move it.

· Environmental regulators, by focusing their halting efforts on the Maline Creek site, failed to address the fact that residents who took scrap from the plants helped spread dangerous asbestos fibers to neighborhood homes and yards.

And although the evidence is anecdotal -- no comprehensive health survey has examined current and former residents of the area near the waste site -- community leaders say they're noticing what seems to be an unusual number of cancer cases.

Bellefontaine Neighbors Mayor Marty Rudloff says a health survey is warranted. "There's been talk of [whether] anybody is keeping any kind of study on the amount of cancer that comes out of the area," Rudloff says. "It just seems like [the incidence of] cancer in Bellefontaine Neighbors is higher."

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