Left Behind

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

Bellefontaine Neighbors, like North St. Louis County's other aging suburbs, is a community in transition. The city's white population -- black residents accounted for just 3 percent of the city's 12,000 people in 1980 -- has spent the past two decades dying or moving. Empty-nesters have been replaced by young black families, and today, more than 44 percent of the city is African-American.

Mary Samsel's parents joined the exodus in 2001, selling the ranch house on Kilgore Drive for $79,900 to Michael and Diane Straughter.

"Everything seemed just right, on the outside," Michael Straughter says, "No one said anything." So he was surprised when he learned last summer that the asbestos-cement pipe was still there -- and so was a bag of asbestos under the house.

Randy Bono (left) and Michael Angelides, two lawyers who represented Mary Samsel
Jennifer Silverberg
Randy Bono (left) and Michael Angelides, two lawyers who represented Mary Samsel
Bellefontaine Neighbors Mayor Marty Rudloff says the number of cancer cases in his community seems high. He believes a study is warranted.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bellefontaine Neighbors Mayor Marty Rudloff says the number of cancer cases in his community seems high. He believes a study is warranted.

Straughter is worried, and, like the mayor, he's looking for answers.

Maline Creek used to meander for the last half-mile of its journey to the Mississippi River. But from 1895 to 1934, the stream was straightened, the Keasbey & Mattison plant opened and Missouri Portland Cement and GAF also set up shop along the creek. In part to keep the creek from returning to its former channel, Keasbey & Mattison, CertainTeed and GAF used waste as fill in low-lying areas. Asbestos material was used to cover what was once a horseshoe bend in the creek; today, the dump is an asbestos-filled pier jutting out into the creek.

Eighteen-year-old Albert Wiese was hired in 1935 by Keasbey & Mattison. Over the next 45 years, Wiese worked his way up to general foreman. In 1976, he learned he had asbestosis, a disease common among asbestos workers. The fibers build up in the lungs and create scar tissue, which doesn't expand and contract as normal lung tissue does. The lung's blood flow is decreased, and the heart enlarges. The condition often leads to death.

"Go to a union-hall meeting with a bunch of asbestos workers, and if everyone is quiet, you'll hear a cellophane-crackling sound," says Charles Beaman, describing the labored breathing of someone with asbestosis. Beaman is St. Louis County government's asbestos-compliance officer.

Wiese retired in 1980 and died four years later. Before his death, he was a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in St. Louis federal court in 1980 against several manufacturers that sold asbestos to the St. Louis plant. Worker-compensation laws barred Wiese and others with asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma from suing their employers, but they could sue the companies that supplied it.

In a deposition, given in 1981, Wiese described the plant as a place where "you could see in the air, particles of asbestos floating in the air." For decades, the dust was collected outside in bins called the "dust house." In the finishing department, Wiese testified, "There was so much dust that you could just see the dust come out all over."

In 1973, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined CertainTeed for its asbestos-waste handling. The federal agency said that the fiber concentration exceeded allowable limits when the asbestos bags were unloaded from a loading dock and when asbestos-containing dust was dumped into containers.

Lloyd Ambler, retired president of CertainTeed's Pipe & Plastics Group, insists the company knew of the dust problem but took precautions: "We, as you know, knew that there were some health issues with asbestos fiber if inhaled in high doses, so we took great precautions in the plants because that's where most of the fiber release was.

"As far as surrounding people in the area, we did dust counts outside our plants, and we never found any problems with the release of fibers, in the atmosphere around the plant that would have any negative impact on anybody close to our facilities," Ambler says.

After CertainTeed closed its doors in 1979, Wiese remained at the plant, in charge of shipping out the yard full of asbestos-cement pipe that the plant produced. Even then, long after manufacturing had ceased, asbestos fibers got into the environment, Wiese later testified. "There would be some dust in the air. It would lay in the pipes and every once in a while, a big gust of wind would blow it out," Wiese said.

In an unrelated St. Louis Circuit Court case filed in 1977, in which CertainTeed was a defendant, the company admitted that it "first became aware in the early 1940s that asbestos fibers could cause asbestosis of the lung, but did not become aware until approximately 1970 of a medical connection in some instances between the inhalation of asbestos fibers and contraction of cancer."

Wiese, in his deposition, claimed CertainTeed never warned workers about the dangers of working around airborne asbestos fibers -- not in the early 1940s, not in 1970, not after it closed the plant in 1979.

Workers weren't the only ones kept in the dark.

In a confidential memo dated 1964, CertainTeed summarized a medical conference on asbestos whose members concluded that malignant mesothelioma had been found in people without any occupational exposure to asbestos who had simply lived in an area near a factory. The memo also noted that in 1931, the United Kingdom's Board of Insurance accepted asbestosis as a cause of lung cancer and that there appeared to be "an accumulation of evidence of the association of asbestos with cancer."

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