March 18, 2009 in Region

Former Grace chemist: Tremolite sickened hamsters

Missoulian
 
Trial coverage
University of Montana law and journalism students are covering the W.R. Grace trial via a blog.

MISSOULA — A former chemist for W.R. Grace & Co. says he oversaw a 1976 study in which hamsters were injected with asbestos-laced vermiculite from Libby.

Over time, many of the hamsters were diagnosed with mesothelioma, and eventually suffocated due to “pleural thickening,” or scarring of the lung lining, according to Heyman C. Duecker, who worked for Grace for more than two decades.

Duecker testified Tuesday in the government’s criminal case against Grace in U.S. District Court here. The Missoulian newspaper reported Duecker’s testimony on its Web site.

At issue is whether Columbia, Md.-based Grace and five one-time company officials knew they were endangering the community of Libby by mining asbestos-laced ore, and whether they did so in violation of federal law.

The testing was part of a corporate directive to study the hazards of asbestos in order to better understand its potential health risks to miners in Libby.

“Failure to do so could result in a total lack of a defense if someone decides to make allegations,” wrote Harry Eschenbach, a defendant and former Grace employee who ordered the product testing.

The results were to be made available at six-month intervals and were to be kept private, Duecker said.

The animals were exposed to Libby vermiculite, which contains a dangerous strain of asbestos called tremolite. The results of the Libby study were then compared to animals exposed to a more common form of commercial asbestos.

“The study would provide us with the relative carcinogenicity of Libby asbestos as compared with commercial asbestos,” Duecker said.

Kevin Cassidy, a prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, suggested the study was evidence that top company officials had already begun to understand that tremolite asbestos in Libby was different than the more common variety of commercial asbestos.


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