Fort Worth Custodian has no choice but to sue

The Dallas Fort Worth Star-Telegram presented a heart moving story of another asbestos victim in Sunday’s May 2 paper. The paper further reports school maintenance workers may be at increased risk for developing diseases related to prolonged exposure to asbestos.

Reading the story, your heart has to go out to this custodian worker:

As Randall Blevins was recovering from surgery, doctors told his wife that the patches indicated exposure to significant amounts of asbestos. Presumably, they said, the right lung was the same.

That was May 2002, 25 years after Blevins began working as a heating and air-conditioning technician for the Fort Worth school district. He fixed boilers and repaired pipes — products often encased in asbestos.

Blevins, 50, believes that his lung disease stemmed from his work for the district because he knows of no other contact with asbestos dust.

From 1977, when he was hired, until about 1982, when the district stepped up its precautions, he handled asbestos without thinking. Blevins said he and the district’s other boiler-room workers hit it with their wrenches and ripped it off pipes with their bare hands while crawling under buildings. Each time, the white shards cascaded into their hair, eyes, noses and mouths.

“We would handle asbestos like it was nothing,” said Blevins, who lives in Southlake. “Might have on only paper masks.”

Blevins said he appears to be the only one in his maintenance team who has been diagnosed with asbestos-related symptoms. But asbestos illnesses typically don’t show up until decades later, and Blevins’ illness gives some of his co-workers pause.

“I look at him and think, ‘That could be me,’ ” said Arthur Cox, the district’s heating and air-conditioning foreman.

The Telegram Star goes on to report the plight of custodians and maintenance workers:

Longtime school custodians and maintenance workers are among the groups quietly paying the price for the nation’s slow reaction to the dangers of asbestos, a heat-resistant insulation used for decades before it was linked to high incidences of cancer.

Before the mid-1980s, maintenance workers commonly handled asbestos without protection, said Herman Earwood, former director of central services for the Fort Worth school district and now mayor of River Oaks.

"Everybody in the country was doing it because they didn’t know any better," said Earwood, who supervised asbestos containment at the district.

Several medical studies have documented lung abnormalities in such employees, many of whom had no known exposure to asbestos outside their school duties.

Blevins had no other alternative than to file suit:

Blevins’ situation is dire. He has lost his school district insurance. He has been unable to find a doctor who will take workers compensation insurance and provide the long-term monitoring that he needs.

On April 21, Blevins filed a lawsuit in state district court against a long list of asbestos-product manufacturers in a last-ditch effort to find some way to pay his escalating medical bills.

Blevins’ body and spirit are broken. Once a 250-pound man who could perform one-arm pushups, he can no longer lift his 17-pound grandson….

Medical records indicate that Blevins showed evidence of asbestos-related damage in 2000, when a CT scan found thickened areas called pleural plaques on his left lung. The plaques aren’t cancerous, but they can be painful.

Blevins believes that they were the cause of his excruciating pain, which prompted doctors to prescribe numerous medications for pain and anxiety.

"He was hurting so bad at night that he was on his knees in the bed, crying," said his wife, Cheryl.

By April 2002, another CT scan found more abnormalities: a 3-centimeter pleural mass, adjacent to the diaphragm; numerous pleural plaques, some of which had calcified; and possible mesothelioma.

"Findings are compatible with asbestos exposure," the report said.

A month later, Blevins was in surgery. The doctors warned him that cancer was likely, but after months of waiting for the test results, he was told that the cells were benign. Good news.

But doctors say he must continue to be monitored.

"He’s truly at risk of malignant mesothelioma," said David Carter, the cardiothoracic surgeon who performed Blevins’ surgery.

Blevins remains in extreme discomfort. He has had a heart attack. He shows signs of "post-thoracotomy syndrome," a common lingering pain from lung surgery, Carter said. He has diabetes, and an inability to control the disease has contributed to a weight gain.

The incidence of asbesotos health problems for custodians is alarming:

A 1991 study of 120 Boston public school custodians found that 33 percent had pleural plaques. The study by Dr. Christine Oliver, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, was published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Lung abnormalities in Wisconsin school custodial and maintenance workers increased the longer they worked for their districts, according to a study published in a 1992 environmental journal. About 2 percent of those who had worked in schools less than 10 years had the abnormalities; 37 percent of those who worked more than 30 years in schools had them.

Blevins wife is not looking for money. "You know what I want? I want my husband back," Cheryl Blevins said. "I just want us to grow old and enjoy our grandkids. I want him back the way he was before he got sick. But I don’t see that happening."

About Kevin
Kevin Coluccio was recently named one of the Top 10 Super Lawyers in Washington State. He has long history of successful asbestos law cases and has a stellar reputation for getting result sfor his asbestos injury cases.