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Michigan health center focusing on asbestos

| April 14, 2004 12:00 AM

The National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers has been started in Michigan in response to statewide illnesses tied to vermiculite mined in Libby and other asbestos-contaminated ores mined in Michigan.

The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, a $200 million-a-year research and treatment center, and the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine affiliated with Wayne State University have joined forces to establish the joint program. The goal is to address an immediate public health need for early diagnosis and aggressive treatment of asbestos-related diseases in Michigan.

A federal health investigation is under way into facilities across the country, including the former W.R. Grace plant on Henn Street in Dearborn, Mich., that processed vermiculite contaminated with asbestos until it shut down in the late 1980s.

More than 300 million pounds of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mined in Libby by the W.R. Grace Company was processed at this Dearborn plant into Zonolite-brand insulation and subsequently used in more than 800,000 Michigan homes. This includes nearly all the single-family housing in Flint and nearly 280,000 homes throughout southeast Michigan. Eight additional W.R. Grace vermiculite-processing plants were located in River Rouge, Warren, Milan, Reed City, Elsie and Grand Rapids.

Persons exposed to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, either occupationally or environmentally, are at risk of developing asbestosis, a progressive and potentially fatal, long-term disease of the lungs, lung cancer and mesothelioma, an extremely aggressive cancer of the covering of the lungs and intestine whose only known cause is asbestos.

³The overall extent of asbestos-related cancers and other diseases related to vermiculite exposure is unclear but initial studies suggest it is substantial,² said Dr. Harvey Pass, professor of surgery and oncology for Karmanos Cancer Institute and WSU.

³COEM has had a long interest in asbestos-related diseases and the Karmanos Cancer Institute is heavily involved in both clinical and basic research on asbestos-related cancers,² Pass said. ³Through this Center we can quickly pull together the expertise and resources necessary to study and treat this problem immediately.²

Spearheaded by longtime collaborators Pass and Dr. Michael Harbut, M.P.H, chief of COEM, the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers brings together a highly experienced team of specialists in pulmonary medicine, cardiology, gastroenterology, radiology and medical oncology to:

• Implement a program of early detection and treatment of human cancers and asbestosis;

• Provide a means to rapidly test large numbers of affected individuals;

• Define populations at increased risk of asbestos exposure prior to it becoming a major medical-legal issue;

• Examine the health consequences of chronic exposure to asbestos contaminated vermiculite and related fibers;

• Increase the basic scientific understanding of asbestos-related cancers; and

• Intensify physician education of asbestos-related diseases throughout Michigan.

³This will probably become a recognized public health problem,² said Dr. John Ruckdeschel, M.D., president and CEO of the Karmanos Cancer Institute, and recognized specialist in lung cancer.

³We¹ve quickly organized some of the nation¹s leading physicians and scientists in this field to provide people exposed to vermiculite and related substances with fast, easy, accurate and orderly screening, conducted by the right doctors in the proper clinical settings,² he said. ³These patients will be screened and assessed in good order and proper sequence for the early detection of mesothelioma and it¹ll be done in an integrated clinical and scientific environment. This is an opportunity to get it right the first time, and we¹re going to do just that.²

Harbut said, given the 15- to 30-year period for diseases related to asbestos to show up after exposure, the country is in the middle of the peak of expected cases of asbestosis but only at the beginning of the peak of expected asbestos-related cancers.²