Claimants' witness in asbestos bankruptcy case: Chrysotile can cause mesothelioma

PITTSBURGH - A medical doctor took the stand Thursday for asbestos claimants in the ongoing asbestos bankruptcy trial in western Pennsylvania arguing that Chrysotile exposure can indeed lead to malignancies in cells that line the lungs.

Laura Welch, a board-certified physician based in Maryland who specializes in occupational medicine, testified for the Official Committee of Asbestos Personal Injury Claimants and the Future Claimants’ Representative, Eric D. Green, during a week-long estimation hearing before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Judith Fitzgerald in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The hearing is designed to close a wide disparity of estimated future asbestos injury claims that exist between the claimants and the debtors, the latter of which in this case are three insolvent companies that formerly produced products containing asbestos: Bondex International, Specialty Products Holding Corp., and RPM International Inc.

The claimants maintain that future asbestos claims number somewhere in the neighborhood of $55 million while the debtors’ experts have estimated that the true figure is closer to about $30 million.

The committee and the Future Claimants’ Representative represent those people who either were plaintiffs, or will be plaintiffs, in asbestos injury cases against the companies.

In 2010, the debtors filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, which offers former defendants in asbestos cases immediate immunity from civil suit, and forces the now-insolvent companies to set up trusts that would pay out claims outside of the tort system.

Earlier in the week, Dr. Allan Feingold testified for the debtors in the estimation hearing, during which each side was afforded by the court 17-and-a-half hours by which to present their respective cases.

On the stand, Feingold testified that in his professional opinion, Chrysotile asbestos, the type of asbestos found in the joint compound that was produced by Bondex and the other debtors, is unlikely to cause mesothelioma absent any other form of asbestos exposure.

On Thursday, however, Welch, who said she has personally conducted studies of sheet metal workers since the mid 1990s, concluded that Chrysotile asbestos can, by itself, lead to the type of lung cancer called mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma doesn’t attack the actual lungs, but instead attacks the cells in the lining of the lungs, which separates the organs from the chest wall.

“Chrysotile asbestos does cause mesothelioma in humans,” Welch said under questioning by Nathan Finch, an attorney from the firm Motley Rice, which is representing the claimants’ committee. While the debtors have claimed that the lawyers representing present and future claimants are inflating the number of those actually injured by exposure to asbestos in order to cash in on the money sitting in the asbestos trusts, Welch sought to explain an alternative reason why more and more claims seem to be popping up in recent times.

“It takes a long time between exposure and development of mesothelioma,” Welch said. “As we go forward, there’s more time for people to develop and die from mesothelioma.”

When Finch questioned Welch on whether the commonly held belief by asbestos defendants that people exposed to joint compound alone can’t develop mesothelioma was true, the doctor responded, “not in my opinion.”

There’s simply no “safe level” of asbestos exposure, Welch said.

The average latency period per mesothelioma case is more than 40 years, Welch testified, meaning that people who were teenagers when exposed to asbestos dust and fibers might not show signs of mesothelioma until they are in their 80s.

“I think it’s very well established that Chrysotile asbestos causes mesothelioma …,” Welch said.

The debtors contend that Chrysotile asbestos doesn’t alone cause mesothelioma. The argument is central to their case because Chrysotile asbestos is the type found in the joint compound that was allegedly used by claimants.

The debtors’ attorneys say the companies were responsible for a very small market share of the joint compound created in the United States in years past, and the product itself was specifically designed for do-it-yourself home use.

Most mesothelioma cases are seen in those who worked around the dust and fiber for a living, such as various types of construction workers.

The debtors claim that amphibole asbestos, the more potent form found in industrial materials, is what is really responsible for mesothelioma development.

On cross-examination, one of the debtors’ attorneys pointed out a past report by Welch in which the doctor wrote that absent exposure to other asbestos forms, it was unlikely that a person would develop mesothelioma from Chrysotile asbestos exposure alone.

Welch admitted to having written that report, but stressed that medical research changes with the times.

“No study’s perfect,” she said, before admitting, “I think it’s reasonable to say that amphibole is probably more potent.”

Welch went on to testify about the concept of individual susceptibility, or the idea that each individual’s development of mesothelioma would also be dependent upon other factors.

The example she gave was the two-pack-a-day smoker who inhaled cigarettes for four decades who never develops lung cancer versus the smoker who smoked the exact same amount of tobacco and does develop cancer.

“I think that in an individual, even the background sources add to their cumulative results,” Welch testified.

On redirect, Finch, the claimants’ attorney, asked Welch about the changing peer-reviewed academic literature that deals with Chrysotile asbestos where mesothelioma is concerned.

Under this line of questioning, Welch again turned to her earlier theme.

“We have information that Chrysotile causes mesothelioma, and I think that’s pretty indisputable,” the doctor said. “The epidemiology supports the relationship … between peritoneal mesothelioma and Chrysotile.”

Reiterating his point, Finch asked Welch, “Does Chrysotile persist in the body long enough to cause asbestos related lung cancer,” to which his witness responded with a simple, “Yes.”

The trial was expected to wrap up by Friday.

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