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Friday, June 7, 2013

Frank Lautenberg: The Senator From Paterson

Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away this week and his legacy of helping the workers will live on for generations. "The boy Paterson," as he used to say, knew first hand of the problems confronted by those who worked in his hometown's asbestos factories.

Official Photograph of U.S. Senator Frank Laut...
Official Photograph of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At one of my early meetings with the late Irving J. Selikoff, MD, the world renown asbestos expert of the health dangers of asbestos fiber, the doctor highlighted the necessity for a strong link between medicine and politics. Both Dr. Selikoff and Senator Lautenberg, grew up and worked in Paterson, NJ.

Paterson, was the home of several asbestos manufacturing factories since it was on a railroad link and was equal distant to major US East coast seaports. Asbestos was a strategic commodity for the US military during World War II.  Asbestos had allegedly "miracle properties" that acted as an insulating agent on Navy ships, boiler rooms  and other heat producing equipment. The serious and adverse effects of asbestos fiber to humans was not readily made known to workers and the public at large.

Consequently, an epidemic of asbestos related disease, including: asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma followed decades after exposure and inflicted disease and death in epidemic proportions. The "original 17" workers' compensation asbestos cases in New Jersey for exposures at The Union Asbestos and Rubber Company plant in Paterson NJ were heard at the Paterson (Passaic County) office of the NJ Division of Workers' Compensation. My father, Carl Gelman, represented the workers and the their dependents, and their medical expert was Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, MD. All were Patersonians.

Dr. Selikoff went onto head the Environmental Sciences Laboratory at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, NY, and continued to follow the cohort of workers through The Paterson Asbestos Control project. That lead to a research project that was published and presented at the New York Academy of Sciences in 1964. International concern was raised over the deadly hazard of asbestos fiber.

Medical research alone could not protect workers in a meaningful way, and Dr. Selikoff knew that, and impressed upon me that the US Senate and Congress would be catalysts for political change that help protect workers from asbestos and other hazardous progress. Likewise, Senator Lautenberg knew that also, and had strong and professional relationship with Dr. Selikoff.

Senator Lautenberg advanced the concept of an important medical-political relationship from asbestos to other environmental hazards and chemicals, including tobacco. The "boy from Paterson,"  sparked by a strong foundation of concern for asbestos workers and public health, brought to Washington a vision for a safer and healthier nation that made a difference to all.

Statement of Hon. Frank R. Lautenberg, U.S. Senator from the                    
State of New Jersey

"Madam Chairman, thank you for holding today's hearing on the health
effects of asbestos. Let me welcome Senator Murray to the committee and
thank her for working to keep Americans safe from asbestos.

   Every year, more than two-thousand Americans die premature and
painful deaths from exposure to asbestos. Their deaths leave children
without parents, and families struggling to make ends meet.

   New Jersey has America's sixth-highest number of deaths from
asbestos. From asbestos used in ship insulation at shipyards to
asbestos used to insulate pipes at refineries and factories, at least
two-thousand seven-hundred and seventy-five New Jerseyans died because
of asbestos exposure from 1979 to 2001. Just last week, a school in
Asbury Park was closed because part of the ceiling fell and asbestos
was found. This toxin's presence in offices, schools and homes could
pose health risks for years to come--ranging from breathing problems to
lung damage and cancer.

    One of the leading researchers on the link between asbestos and
lung disease was Dr. Irving Selikoff, who lived in New Jersey. Dr.
Selikoff did his research on workers across my state, including those
in my home town of Paterson. In 1979, Dr. Selikoff showed that one in
five asbestos workers developed a fatal lung disease. Senator Murray's
bill is a strategy for real action to reduce asbestos in the places we
live and work.

    The bill will ban the use of asbestos to the maximum extent
possible and benefit companies who are producing safer alternatives. It
also calls for more research on the health affects of asbestos, as well
as the best treatment options for asbestos-related illnesses and better
coordination among federal agencies. Congress owes our children and
grandchildren action now to protect them from asbestos in the future.

    I look forward to hearing the testimony of today's witnesses.

    Thank you Madam Chairman.

EXAMINING THE HUMAN HEALTH EFFECTS OF ASBESTOS AND THE METHODS: MITIGATING SUCH IMPACTS, Tuesday, June 12, 2007, The US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
"Mr. LAUTENBERG. Mr. President, since time is limited, I am going to get down to the nuts and bolts. I come from a State in which asbestos was prominent in manufacturing in many places. As a matter of fact, early in the 1950s, a doctor named Irving Selikoff, who was a researcher as well as a physician, discovered the lethality of asbestos. He is the one who raised the alarm about the dangers of that product.

He saw mesothelioma and asbestosis.

In my office in New Jersey, I had a man and his wife and his mature son, who was about 30 years old, come in to see me because they all had mesothelioma, but only the father worked in the manufacturing facility, the mill. His wife and child, his son, were made ill as a result of the mother washing her husband's clothes. That is how lethal, how dangerous asbestos is.

This bill is an abstract exercise. There are real people involved, people who are going to die as a result of the exposure. I have seen it up front and personal. A friend of mine who was a lawyer, after practicing 20 years, got a call from a member of a union one day that had asbestos workers, and he was told to get a chest x ray. He did. After 20 years of no illness, nothing, suddenly they found that he had a spot on his lung, and it turned into mesothelioma and he was dead soon thereafter.

I recently had a World War II vet--I am one as well--come into my office, sick from mesothelioma, from work he did 40 years ago. We have seen so many cases where the gestation period is so long, so that to suddenly close this out and say that is going to be enough money, $140 billion--it sounds like a lot, but it is not a lot when it comes to individuals who need help and who need to be able to continue to conduct their lives and do whatever they can to make life comfortable.

The Congressional Budget Office has stated that the fund will need $10 billion more. Other analysts put the figure as high as $300 billion. So it is fairly obvious that I am going to oppose this bill and support the point of order. I urge my colleagues to do the same because what we are doing is dismissing the suffering of people who have been exposed to this, even though the companies knew how dangerous the material was they were working with. They permitted people to work with it and did not do anything about it, except ultimately, in many cases, they went bankrupt as a result of their behavior.

FAIRNESS IN ASBESTOS INJURY RESOLUTION ACT OF 2005--Resumed -- (Senate - February 14, 2006)

"Mr. LAUTENBERG. Mr. President, I rise today in memory of a dear friend of mine, Prof. Irving J. Selikoff. Irving's uncompromised dedication to medical research and education in disease caused by hazardous materials paved the way for new standards of occupational safety. He was an extremely committed individual and I have learned a great deal about life, ethics, and public policy from him.
Dr. Selikoff's commitment to making the world a better place to live has been an inspiration to me and has further spurred my efforts to improve the public health. Mr. President, Dr. Irving Selikoff passed away on May 20, 1992, but he left us a legacy of medical knowledge that will continue to change the way people across the Nation live for many years to come. He will be missed.

Mr. President, on August 3, 1992, the industrial union department of the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution in memory of Dr. Selikoff. I want to share these words with my collegues and I ask unanimous consent that it be included in the Record.

Senator Lautenberg's Resolution in Memory of Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, January 15, 1915-May 20, 1992

Dr. Selikoff was a legend among workers. No other physician had as close a relationship with so many working people. He saw himself as a public servant, proud of working for a city medical school and being paid by the people.

He was first recognized as a scientist while serving in a public tuberculosis hospital, where he conducted the clinical trials for Isoniazid. This drug brought the `white plague', then the most serious disease in the workplace, under control. He started a clinic in Paterson, New Jersey, a community of textile workers. There, in response to disease among his own patients, all union members, he linked lung scarring and cancer to working with asbestos.

When he understood the importance of this finding, he left his clinic and established at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine a program designed to end the asbestos scourge with tools of science and medicine placed in the hands of unions. Soon his work on asbestos and many other workplace pollutants impacted every affiliate of the Industrial Union Department.

Dr. Selikoff studied and counseled workers and their families in Baltimore, Charleston, Lansing, Duluth, Midland, Norfolk, Nitro, Port Allegheny, New York's Chinatown, the Rocky Mountains and the mountains of Vermont, Canada's Mohawk reservation and hundreds of other places. He became known as a great scientist, but he never stopped being a doctor who worked tirelessly every day of the week, examining chartered plane loads of workers on Sunday and bringing clinics to wherever workers gathered, whether in the union hall at night or the convention on Saturday.

He knew that doctors need to understand the workplace and the labor movement. He required all his students to work in or with the Industrial Union Department. He gave us a network of physicians and scientists who continue to help us, whether in the clinic or before the Congress.

He knew that labor and science function internationally. He gave us a community of university allies in thirty countries under the aegis of Collegium Ramazzini and its Institute for Occupational and Environmental Health Research.

He knew that we seldom could achieve zero exposure to most toxic substances in the workplace. He helped us create the Workplace Health Fund to assist workers at risk, become partners in cancer treatment research and develop special programs of education.

Dr. Selikoff gave us an agenda for the future, and a Center at Mt. Sinai, the Selikoff Fund of the Workplace Health Fund, and the Ramazzini Institute for Occupational and Environmental Health Research to carry out the agenda. It is up to those of us who benefitted from his life work to continue to support the institutions he created.
  • IRVING J. SELIKOFF TRIBUTE (Senate - August 04, 1992)
    [Page: S11410]