WASHINGTON – Ellen Patton grew up helping her dad with projects around the family’s house in Arnold — projects that Patton now says exposed her to asbestos products that caused her to develop mesothelioma.
“I feel like I have a ticking bomb in my chest. My family is devastated,” said Patton, 44, of her cancer, for which there is no known cure. “They don’t want to admit it . . . but I’m going to die from mesothelioma.”
If so, Patton would join 1,079 other Marylanders who have died from asbestos-related illnesses since 1979, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Working Group, a research organization based in Washington.
The report estimates that asbestos-related illnesses are “killing at least 10,000 Americans a year, and will cause the deaths of at least 100,000 Americans over the next decade.”
Six years in the making, the report was released Thursday to counter legislation — like a bill currently before the Senate — that would place restrictions on asbestos lawsuits.
The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2003 would create a superfund for victims of asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma. But it would also require victims to file a claim within two years of the time they are diagnosed or discover “facts that would have led a reasonable person to obtain a medical diagnosis with respect to an eligible disease,” among other limitations.
Supporters say the bill is needed to curb the number of asbestos-related lawsuits that have resulted to dozens of bankruptcies and over $70 billion in payments, according to the Asbestos Alliance, a group representing defendant companies.
The bill, introduced last May, would award individual victims up $400,000. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told the Senate on Wednesday that the fund could be as large as $114 billion.
“It’s higher than the alliance has supported,” said Jan Amundson, chairwoman of the Asbestos Alliance. The group would like total payments of no more than $90 billion, but is nonetheless supportive of the bill.
Without a change in the law, companies could end up paying up to $275 billion, said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which also supports the bill.
“We have already seen at least 70 asbestos bankruptcies. Without legislation, there will be many more,” Amundson said in a prepared statement.
The FAIR Act fund would go for about 25 years and limit the amount businesses have to contribute to $2.5 billion per year, Amundson said.
But opponents stress that 25 years is not enough time to provide payment for asbestos victims, especially since there are still products that contain asbestos out on the market. Chalkboards, pipe insulation and laboratory gloves are some of the products that may contain asbestos, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Whatever the Congress does, if they do anything at all, it should be an improvement over the current situation and help everyone for as long people are injured or killed from asbestos. And that will be for at least 50 years,” said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group.
Patton, whose mesothelioma was diagnosed in 2001, has since moved out of the house where she grew up and now lives in a basement apartment in Arnold. But she said the house is still there and, “I know that the outside shingles are asbestos shingles.”
Patton, who received an undisclosed settlement as part of a class-action suit by asbestos victims, notes that under the FAIR Act proposal her settlement payments would stop.
She said she is having some success with immunotherapy in a Bahamian clinic that costs her $20,000 a year. But she stressed even the settlement is not enough to pay for the treatment.
“Plus, how can you put a dollar amount on a life? It’s my life,” she said.
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