Deadly legacy of as­bestos in navy ships from US

Kathimerini speaks to re­tired Greek ser­vice­men seek­ing an­swers, dam­ages af­ter fall­ing se­ri­ously ill, and to the ex­perts who ad­vise them

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIAN­NIS PA­PADOPOU­LOS

He was 14 years old when he left his vil­lage in Epirus in north­west­ern Greece and joined the Hel­lenic Naval Academy. It was the first time he saw the sea. He went on to serve on anti-tor­pedo, an­timine and wa­ter-car­ry­ing craft. The con­di­tions of ser­vice on the first ships he was posted to de­ter­mined the rest of his life. “The chemo­ther­apy is like be­ing dumped from a plane onto rocks – ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain,” he told Kathimerini.

In 2004 he was di­ag­nosed with esophageal can­cer and in 2009 with lung can­cer. “The doc­tors told me it was largely due to in­hala­tion of fumes from toxic paints and the as­bestos,” the 63year-old navy pen­sioner said.

He asked that his name not be pub- lished be­cause he doesn’t want all of his ac­quain­tances to know about his ill­ness. He hopes the can­cer will sta­bi­lize. He has reg­u­lar check­ups ev­ery six months and breath­ing is a chore as he’s al­ready had his right lung re­moved.

It was 1972 when he found him­self, along with other Greek naval of­fi­cers, in San Diego in the USA to take de­liv­ery of the Koun­tou­ri­o­tis. The de­stroyer for­merly called USS Ru­per­tus (DD-851) had fought in Ko­rea and Viet­nam be­fore com­ing into Greek hands, as was the case with other such ves­sels that were part of Amer­i­can aid in the 1950s-70s pe­riod. The ship needed ex­ten­sive re­pairs, but one of the ba­sic ma­te­ri­als it con­tained was as­bestos, now known for its harm­ful prop­er­ties.

“It was in the en­gine room but also in the pipes that ran through our sleep- ing quar­ters. The con­di­tions were ter­ri­ble, like liv­ing in an apart­ment that’s be­ing torn down,” said the re­tired of­fi­cer, who is now seek­ing dam­ages from the Greek state.

His is one of sev­eral pend­ing cases. Over the past decade, dozens of re­tired Greek naval of­fi­cers have been com­pen­sated by the US for ex­po­sure to as­bestos. In 2015, a Greek court ruled against the Greek state for the first time in a suit filed by a for­mer of­fi­cer who had been di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal can­cer, award­ing him 250,000 eu­ros.

Hav­ing spo­ken to for­mer ser­vice­men and the doc­tors who ex­am­ined them, as well as with their lawyers in Greece and the United States, Kathimerini can now re­veal un­known as­pects of the or­deals suf­fered by re­tired Hel­lenic Navy of­fi­cers who served on old Amer­i­can-built de­stroy­ers. None of them had been of­fi­cially briefed on safety mea­sures or warned about the dan­gers to which they were ex­posed.

Con­stanti­nos Ver­gos, a for­mer di­rec­tor at the Athens Naval Hos­pi­tal’s lung clinic, spot­ted the first sus­pi­cious cases among re­tired navy of­fi­cers in 1994. Most were en­gi­neers and elec­tri­cians who came into di­rect con­tact with as­bestos, which has very fine fibers that en­ter the res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem and cause in­flam­ma­tion of the tis­sue lay­ers (pleura) lin­ing the lungs.

Painful con­di­tion

“It’s painful. The pleura trans­mit pain in a way that the rest of the lung does not,” said Ver­gos, who re­tired in 2009 with the rank of rear ad­mi­ral.

In re­sponse to a ques­tion from Kathimerini re­gard­ing ill­nesses linked to as­bestos ex­po­sure, the Hel­lenic Navy Gen­eral Staff said that the corps’ pub­lic health author­i­ties have “not noted an in­crease of as­besto­sis or mesothe­lioma com­pared to Greece’s broader pop­u­la­tion so as to at­tribute ill­nesses of this form ex­clu­sively to a ca­reer in the Navy.” The re­sponse added that com­par­a­tive data are be­ing drawn from all of the armed forces’ health ser­vices, as well as from civil­ian hos­pi­tals.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to ev­i­dence seen by Kathimerini, a search of pa­tients’ records at the lung clinic of the Athens Naval Hos­pi­tal in the 1998-2011 pe­riod found nine cases of mesothe­lioma (an ag­gres­sive form of can­cer), one of as­besto­sis (lung dis­ease that leads to longterm prob­lems and pos­si­bly can­cer) and 118 cases of lung can­cer. One of the mesothe­lioma files men­tioned that the pa­tient was ex­posed to as­bestos on a daily ba­sis for eight years, as he was posted in ships’ sup­ply holds.

Greek law rec­og­nizes mesothe­lioma, as­besto­sis and lung can­cer as a re­sult of as­bestos in­hala­tion as a job-re­lated ill­ness.

“Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have proved that as­bestos is al­most the ex­clu­sive cause of mesothe­lioma,” ex­plained Ver­gos.

It usu­ally takes 20 or even more than 30 years af­ter ex­po­sure for the first symp­toms to ap­pear, and once mesothe­lioma is di­ag­nosed av­er­age life ex­pectancy is three years.

The un­named Hel­lenic Navy of­fi­cer who spoke to Kathimerini is seen in a pho­to­graph from 1973, stand­ing be­side the de­stroyer Koun­tou­ri­o­tis.

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