In response to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) identification of major sources of public asbestos exposure in Michigan, the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine (COEM) affiliated with Wayne State University (WSU) have joined forces to establish The National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers.
The joint program is addressing an immediate public health need for early diagnosis and aggressive treatment of asbestos-related diseases in Michigan.
A federal health investigation is underway into facilities across the country, including the former W.R. Grace plant on Henn Street in Dearborn that processed vermiculite contaminated with asbestos for decades until it shut down in the late 1980s. More than 300 million pounds of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mined in Libby, Montana, by the W.R. Grace Company was processed at this Dearborn plant into Zonolite-brand insulation and subsequently used in more than 800,000 Michigan homes. This includes virtually all the single-family housing in Flint and nearly 280,000 homes throughout southeast Michigan. Eight additional W.R. Grace vermiculite-processing plants were located in River Rouge, Warren, Milan, Reed City, Elsie and Grand Rapids.
Persons exposed to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, either occupationally or environmentally, are at risk of developing asbestosis, a progressive and potentially fatal, long-term disease of the lungs, lung cancer and mesothelioma, an extremely aggressive cancer of the covering of the lungs and intestine whose only known cause is asbestos. Smokers who have been exposed to asbestos are 50 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers. Additionally, those who have been exposed to asbestos have been shown to have twice the chance of developing colorectal cancer.
“The overall extent of asbestos-related cancers and other diseases related to vermiculite exposure is unclear but initial studies suggest it is substantial,” says Harvey Pass, M.D., professor of surgery and oncology for Karmanos Cancer Institute and WSU. “COEM has had a long interest in asbestos-related diseases and the Karmanos Cancer Institute is heavily involved in both clinical and basic research on asbestos-related cancers,” says Dr. Pass.
“Through this Center we can quickly pull together the expertise and resources necessary to study and treat this problem immediately.”
Spearheaded by longtime collaborators Dr. Pass and Michael Harbut, M.D., M.P.H, chief of COEM, The National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers brings together a highly experienced team of specialists in pulmonary medicine, cardiology, gastroenterology, radiology and medical oncology to:
- Implement a program of early detection and treatment of human cancers and asbestosis resulting from chronic exposure to asbestos contaminated vermiculite including mesothelioma and lung cancer;
- Provide a means to rapidly test large numbers of potentially affected individuals;
- Define populations at increased risk of asbestos exposure prior to it becoming a major medical-legal issue;
- Examine the health consequences of chronic exposure to asbestos contaminated vermiculite and related fibers;
- Increase the basic scientific understanding of asbestos-related cancers; and
- Intensify physician education of asbestos-related diseases throughout Michigan.
“This will probably become a recognized public health problem,” says Dr. John Ruckdeschel, M.D., president and CEO of the Karmanos Cancer Institute, and recognized specialist in lung cancer.