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Research Shows Seamen Are Exposed To High Levels Of Asbestos

November 30, 1986

BOLOGNA, Italy (AP) _ Researchers say millions of seamen may have been exposed to high levels of asbestos, a cancer-causing agent found everywhere on ships from boiler room insulations to toasters in the galley.

″We have known for a long time what happened to people who made the ship and were exposed to asbestos,″ said researcher Irving Selikoff. ″But once the ship left the shipyard, we closed our eyes.″

Selikoff was one of 75 people attending a four-day conference on industrial safety that included private working sessions dealing with the subject of asbestos exposure. The conference, organized by the Collegium Ramazzino, a research group Selikoff founded, ends Monday.

Asbestos releases airborne fibers that can lead to a variety of ailments, including lung cancer and asbestosis, or scarring of lung tissue.

The fire-retardant material has been commonly used aboard ships since 1900, not only for insulation, but in paint, tiles, furniture and even bunkroom blankets.

For the last five years, Selikoff has studied the effects of asbestos on thousands of seamen in the United States.

Leonard Jaques, a Detroit lawyer who filed lawsuits against 531 shipowners on behalf of 1,500 American seamen, said Saturday that Selikoff began the work at his request. The cases filed by Jaques are pending in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, Ohio.

Jaques said Selikoff, a professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, found 46 percent of the seamen who have been sailing for 40 to 50 years contracted asbestos-related diseases.

Selikoff’s studies showed the rate declined steadily among people with less sailing time, either because of less exposure to asbestos or because asbestos- related diseases have a long latency period, Jaques said.

Scientists said other studies appeared to be leading in the same direction.

More than 100 lung X-rays taken of sailors working on Greek vessels showed a high rate of lung abnormalities, such as cancerous growths.

Another study showed a significant presence of pleural plaques, a lung abnormality, among Japanese seamen, said Dr. Yutaka Hosada of Japan.

Studies of 250,000 seamen in Sweden also showed propensity for lung cancer, with the risk increasing proportionally to the number of years at sea, researchers said.

Selikoff stressed the foreign studies were based on preliminary research and that American studies could be biased because they relied on volunteers and didn’t examine career occupational records.

However, he added, that ″What we’ve seen here certainly doesn’t yield much optimism for the future.″

There are an estimated 10 million to 20 million merchant seamen worldwide.

Some countries have begun to tackle the problem.

In the United States, asbestos may not be used on ships being built now, but there is no requirement to remove asbestos from older vessels.

Jaques said Saturday he is lobbying for changes in the law. He noted that the U.S. Navy has been ″detoxifying″ its ships for years.

Many other developed countries have restricted the use of asbestos and some, like Sweden, have ordered it removed from all ships.

But scientists say other nations, like Japan, continue to build asbestos into ships. They say the use of asbestos remains largely unregulated, especially in the Third World.

Jaques and Selikoff said they want to coordinate further research done in seafaring nations.

″We want to alert all seamen in the entire world,″ Jaques said. ″We’re talking about a problem that’s really like an epidemic.″

On land, about 30 millions tons of asbestos are in place in the United States. About 10,000 Americans die prematurely each year from asbestos-related diseases.

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