Everett settles firefighters’ lawsuit over asbestos exposure

EVERETT — The city of Everett has settled a lawsuit with firefighters by agreeing to pay for lifetime medical monitoring for potential asbestos-related health problems.

The settlement allows the city to avoid paying out millions of dollars.

The firefighters were exposed to asbestos in July 2007 while conducting training exercises in city-owned houses. The buildings were known to contain the dangerous material, which has been linked to cancer.

Dozens of firefighters and their spouses filed a claim with the city last year seeking $9 million. They then filed a lawsuit.

The monitoring program is expected to cost the city no more than $15,000 next year and probably less in coming years, said the city’s chief financial officer Debra Bryant.

In order to encourage participation, the city also will pay firefighters twice their base pay while they’re getting their first medical exam of the monitoring program.

“It’s a fair and equitable agreement,” she said.

The lawsuit never was about the money, said Paul Gagnon, president of the firefighters union. What firefighters wanted was lifetime medical monitoring for all the firefighters who were exposed, he said.

“We believe it’s a good deal for us and the city,” he said.

The city originally offered lifetime medical monitoring to 27 of the firefighters who are named in the claim, but did not make that same offer to another 22 firefighters who also trained in the houses.

Those firefighters weren’t eligible for medical monitoring, the city determined, because their levels of exposure weren’t believed to be as significant as that of their colleagues.

Under this agreement, all firefighters will be offered access to the voluntary program.

The medical monitoring program does not extend to spouses.

It’s not part of the settlement, but the city will still be obligated to pay for health care if problems arise. The city would pay for medical costs up to $750,000. After that, the city’s insurance would pick up the remaining amount.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber made of microscopic bundles. It was commonly used in building materials and in ship construction because it resists combustion. Once disturbed, however, the fibers can become airborne and lodge in a person’s lungs.

Asbestos exposure has been linked to serious health problems, including mesothelioma, an often fatal form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs and stomach. Sometimes problems don’t surface until years after exposure, according to the National Cancer Institute.

In July 2007, Everett firefighters chopped holes in several old homes the city owned on N. Broadway and Tower Street. They were engaged in a training exercise.

Unlike what happens at an actual fire, the crews were not wearing their self-contained breathing gear.

At least one fire official knew the houses contained asbestos before the training, but the exercise went on anyway, apparently because of miscommunication.

A state consultant with the Department of Labor &Industries concluded in a December 2007 report that the asbestos exposure problem was serious enough that firefighters who had “significant exposures” should be checked by a doctor on a regular basis to monitor their health.

The consultant also concluded that all Everett firefighters at sometime during their careers likely have been exposed to the potentially dangerous fibers because the department has lacked a policy to inspect training areas for possible hazardous materials exposure.

Since then, the city has taken steps to prevent asbestos exposure, including inspecting buildings for hazards before firefighters tear them apart during training. Crews are required to wear breathing protection during the drills and undergo decontamination afterward. Firefighters also have been provided training on avoiding asbestos and other airborne risks.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com

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