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Asbestos Peril From Santa Ana's Past

Official says workers, and perhaps neighbors, were probably exposed to unsafe amounts from the W.R. Grace factory from 1972 to 1993.

September 19, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Employees at the W.R. Grace & Co. industrial plant in Santa Ana from 1972 to 1993, and possibly nearby residents at the time, could face asbestos-related health problems and should seek medical attention even if they do not have symptoms, a federal official warned Thursday.

Scott Mall, spokesman for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta, said an undetermined number of people in Santa Ana were probably exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos, which was embedded in materials processed at the plant before 1994.

The source of the asbestos was vermiculite ore, a mineral mined in Libby, Mont., by Grace and heat-processed at its plants throughout the country -- including Santa Ana -- to make insulation, fireproofing, masonry and other products. The company's vermiculite was later discovered to be heavily contaminated with asbestos, which can cause cancer.

The Grace plant, on 4 acres in the 2500 block of South Garnsey Street, no longer processes asbestos-tainted vermiculite but still employs about 35 people to produce fireproofing materials used in high-rise buildings. Some of those employees worked in the plant before 1993.

The plant lies in an industrial corridor sandwiched by a residential neighborhood and two schools: Washington Elementary, opened in 1949, and Saddleback High, opened in 1967.

A federal study released this week shows low levels of asbestos in soil around the plant, although the site is paved. Air samples showed no asbestos fibers. Grace officials said they consider the report good news, but Mall said it leaves open many questions, including whether neighbors and students and the two schools could have been affected.

"Current students and neighbors have no reason for concern. But for those who were there 15 to 20 years ago, it might cause you some concern, but of course not as much as an employee or a family member of an employee," Mall said. "If it were me, I would do some research, at a minimum, if not see a doctor."

Mall said employees probably carried home asbestos fibers on their clothes, which could have been washed with clothes of family members, increasing the number of people exposed.

Because wind patterns are not known, it is unclear whether students could have been affected, he said.

Grace spokesman Bill Corcoran said the company "recognizes that employees may have been exposed to higher levels of asbestos than is now acceptable, although at the time they were legal levels."

The employees had health insurance and current employees receive regular lung checks, but Corcoran said that because of Hurricane Isabel, he didn't have access Thursday to a comprehensive list of former employees, nor a history of asbestos-related illness at Grace plants.

Corcoran said about 100 employees worked in the plant at any given time before 1993 but that he did not know the total number who worked there when vermiculite was processed.

The Libby area has become an environmental and public health disaster. More than a third of its 5,500 residents have lung abnormalities, and lung ailments have killed more than 200.

The Environmental Protection Agency predicts that it will take five years and $50 million to cleanse the community of asbestos.

Mall said the Santa Ana study was one of more than two dozen being conducted at plants nationwide where vermiculite from Libby was processed.

Corcoran said he interpreted the report as saying "there is no risk."

Grace, a $1.6-billion chemical and building materials company, based in Columbia, Md., has already paid $20 million in individual claims in Libby and spent more than $2 million cleaning up its plants there. The company has pledged millions more to cover medical bills for anyone in Libby diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness, and $250,000 a year to the local hospital for health screenings. Grace declared bankruptcy in 2001, which prevents further lawsuits and allows the company to reorganize, Corcoran said.

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