For Charles G. Warfel Sr., even picking up the mail is difficult.
"When I got to walk to the mailbox, why, when I walk back I can hardly breathe," says the 74-year-old carpenter. "I've felt this way for at least 20 years."
Warfel is positive who is responsible: about a dozen asbestos manufacturers, including Manville Corp., whose products were commonplace in the Bethlehem Steel Corp. Key Highway Shipyard in Baltimore.
"I feel like there's a sewer going through me when I breathe," says Warfel, still bitter over what he considers the most tangible manifestation of his more than 30 years in the shipyard.
Like thousand of other former shipyard workers around the country, Warfel suffers from asbestosis, he and his lawyer say. It is a debilitating lung condition caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers from the asbestos insulation once widely used on the tankers and other ships built by Warfel and other members of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America.
Like those other workers, as well as workers in a wide variety of American industries, Warfel's claim against Manville for damages has been in legal limbo for nearly three years, after Manville obtained court protection from lawsuits by filing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. His claim will not be resolved until the buildings material manufacturer emerges from the bankruptcy proceeding.
Harry Goldman, a Baltimore lawyer who represents Warfel, says the carpenter has been awarded about $60,000 from other asbestos makers, but has not received anything from Manville, which is believed to have been the largest producer of asbestos for the shipyard.
Another 200 members of Warfel's union are in the same situation, as are more than 16,000 other workers around the country who have had their claims against Manville held up by the bankruptcy proceedings. And despite last week's tentative agreement by Manville to set up a trust fund to pay victims, there's no telling when or how those with successful claims against Manville will be able to start collecting their money, lawyers say.
Manville has said it will consider joining 50 other asbestos manufacturers and their insurers who earlier this summer established a joint claims facility that would pay off asbestos victims. But plaintiffs' lawyers say it is unclear how this facility would work exactly, or whether the victims would receive fair compensation under the so-called Wellington Plan. If not, the victims have the option of a jury trial and the prospect of even further litigation.
As the wheels of justice run their course, then, the only thing Warfel and other workers can do is wait, an activity they have gotten used to in the protracted legal battle surrounding Manville.
Warfel's story is much like that of the other workers involved in this legal battle. He says he came to the shipyard in 1940 and stayed until he was forced to retire in 1971 because he was too weak to work. For those 31 years, Warfel served as a carpenter. "We built scaffolding for the other men to work on, and we took it down when they were done," he says. What he didn't know was that the asbestos dust sitting on the planks and other materials in the yard were progressively eating away at his lungs, he says.
Warfel says that, by the late 1960s, he began feeling pains in his chest and was coughing up blood. In 1971, he went into the hospital for two months, and he has had to use an oxygen bottle to breathe periodically since that time. He says his doctors told him "there was something the matter with his lungs," but said they were never sure what.
That changed in 1979, according to Warfel and his lawyer Goldman. That year Dr. Irving Selikoff, the New York scientist responsible for much of the research linking asbestos to severe illnesses, came to Warfel's local and carried out a survey of some 215 shipyard workers. The survey showed that 84 percent of the shipyard workers who had been working for at least 35 years had some form of asbestosis. Soon after, many of these workers filed suit against Manville and the other asbestos manufacturers, alleging that they had failed to warn the shipyard workers about the hazardous nature of their products.
Against such claims, Manville has contended that there was no scientific basis for knowing the danger the levels of asbestos at the shipyard constituted until 1964. Afterwards, it says, appropriate warnings were offered.
"I never knew it was the asbestos until after we had that meeting in the union hall," says Warfel. Noting that he was on the union's safety committee, he adds: "If anybody would have known about it, I would have. If I had known something like that, I would have stopped it."