MISSOULA — A former chemist for W.R. Grace & Co. told jurors Tuesday that 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.
The Missoulian newspaper reported Duecker’s testimony on its Web site Tuesday.
Duecker testified in the government’s criminal case against Grace. 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.
Another witness, a former financial analyst for W.R. Grace & Co., testified Monday that top corporate officials knew their products contained asbestos and were concerned about whether it would be hazardous to people or lead to lawsuits against the company.
James R. Becker worked for Grace from 1976 until 1980, and sat on the company’s Zonolite Strategic Task Force, which was created to identify any long-term problems associated with Grace’s vermiculite mine in Libby. The vermiculite was used in products include fireproofing and attic insulation.
“The Zonolite business was not growing as fast as the company wanted it to grow,” Becker said. “And then there was the issue with tremolite in the vermiculite. Tremolite was a form of asbestos and there were questions about whether that would be a hazard to people who were exposed to it and there were beginning to be regulations about what levels would be allowed.”
Increased federal regulations meant that any Grace products containing asbestos would have to be labeled as hazardous before distribution.
“They were worried that nobody would buy it,” said Becker, who used his own notes from the task force meetings to describe the group’s findings to jurors.
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