Indecent Exposure

They spent months covered in the dust and dirt of a prison renovation. Now, dozens of officers and inmates say the state risked their lives by making them work with asbestos.

In his affidavit, Captain Poole says more people could be exposed to asbestos during future renovations. He says he believes ADOC will continue exposing people to risk regardless of the rules.

The regulator watchdogs aren't exactly leaping to enforce the law in this case. Aside from this lawsuit, no investigation or enforcement action is in the works.

ADOSH at first dismissed complaints from the inmates because inmate labor wasn't part of its jurisdiction. It then dismissed a complaint from the staff because of the letter that Adams wrote which said that there was no problem. After other letters came back challenging Adams' account, ADOSH decided it would be too much trouble to conduct an inspection because so much time had passed, according to the agency's files.

The Maricopa County Division of Environmental Services is supposed to enforce asbestos regulations, a responsibility handed down by the federal government to local agencies. But the person who dealt with ADOC during the renovations has since left the county, and there are gaps in the division's files. Because of this, the county has no idea if laws were followed at Aspen or not.

The Environmental Protection Agency won't say whether it is conducting a criminal investigation of the Department of Corrections.

Although the state concedes the presence of asbestos at Aspen in the past, officials, in a response to the lawsuit, still deny anyone was ever exposed to the stuff during the renovation. As for the inmates who did the plumbing--even though there was asbestos wrapped around some pipes--the state argues it just doesn't know if any of them were exposed to asbestos or not.

Since the enforcement of asbestos law has now moved into the private hands of the plaintiffs, it could add up to a significant public cost. In the federal suit, the plaintiffs are asking for $25,000 per violation per day--for a period that covers about nine months. In the state suit, damages are unspecified.

Even if the plaintiffs lose, the cost of the chest x-rays and checkups the inmates are supposed to be getting is still on the taxpayers' bill--as is the cost of the time spent defending the lawsuit.

In the federal suit, the plaintiffs only have to prove that the state violated the law. To succeed in state court, however, they have to show they were harmed by those violations. That could be trickier.

While former inmates Marczak and McCaleb both say they've experienced health problems since leaving Aspen, the plaintiffs are not yet claiming any physical harm resulting from asbestos exposure in the state suit. The main damage they can claim now is "emotional distress"--the fear the state has caused them if it is proven they were negligently exposed to a health risk. To win damages, the plaintiffs have to prove they have a good reason to be afraid.

Compared to the science-fiction varieties of disease today--AIDS, infectious proteins, flesh-eating bacteria, the Ebola virus--it might seem almost quaint for the Aspen plaintiffs to be worried about asbestos exposure. Asbestos is in almost every building constructed in this century before the 1970s--it is a lightweight, strong, nonflammable mineral once used for insulation. But for the past 25 years, asbestos has been well-known as a health risk. By any measure, it's supposed to be a worry of the past.

But asbestos is still a clear and present danger, according to Steve Hayes, a professional engineer and certified industrial hygienist. Hayes has worked as a consultant on asbestos removal for 16 years, and his professional knowledge has also been deepened by personal experience--he lost a friend to mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer.

When crushed or broken, asbestos flies into particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye. Once inhaled, the particles cut into the soft tissues of the nasal passages, throat and lungs, Hayes explains.

"The thing that makes asbestos so much of a health risk is that the individual fibers . . . are small enough that they can be inhaled into the very deepest interiors of the lungs. . . . They're very thin, very long and very sharp," Hayes says. "You've basically got this little-bitty needle in your lungs, and people who've been exposed to a lot of it have millions of them."

Those needles scar the lung tissue, causing asbestosis, which gradually reduces one's ability to breathe, Hayes says. To get an idea of what asbestosis is like, Hayes compares it to breathing through a coffee stirrer.

The asbestos needles also cause cancer. Asbestos causes a lung cancer similar to the lung cancer caused by smoking, Hayes says. Asbestos has also been linked to cancers of the throat and stomach. In rarer cases, it causes a form of cancer called mesothelioma, where tumors infiltrate the lining of the chest and abdomen.

"There is no known cure; if you have mesothelioma, you're probably going to die, and you're probably going to die an agonizing and painful death," Hayes says. Unlike lung cancer or asbestosis, mesothelioma can be caused by extremely low exposures to asbestos. The tumors spread quickly throughout the body. Hayes says his friend described it as "being squeezed to death from the inside."

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