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Wendy Roberts' husband, Randy Roberts, died of mesothelioma from asbestos in September 2011.

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Love lost: Asbestos to be banned, but not before Wendy Roberts lost her husband

 

Her beloved husband's battle with asbestos-caused cancer — what he called The Monster — transformed Wendy Roberts into an activist who lobbed passionate emails and letters at the U.S. government, wrote testimonials for petition drives and helped with fundraisers for The Monster's victims.

On June 22, Roberts helped win a victory over The Monster when President Barack Obama signed a bill into law making it easier for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to outlaw dangerous substances including asbestos. In rare bipartisan support, Republicans and Democrats praised the new law for making life safer for workers and consumers. The law Wendy fought to pass will affect almost every cleanser, car, beauty product, paint thinner and can of food Americans can buy.

But the victory was bittersweet because Randy, the husband Wendy adored, had died.

"I promised Randy that I would fight The Monster for him," says Wendy, 56. "I hope this new law will prevent people suffering the way he did. But I wish the battle had been won long before now, so my husband could be here with me."

Beating the odds

Randy Roberts' elementary school teachers held him back two years and his high school principal urged him to give up and drop out because they said he was too "slow" to learn. Randy's nature and determination drove him to an unusual revenge: He packed his life with fun friends, had a loving marriage to Wendy, a Hamilton County school teacher, and passions for football, Boston Red Sox baseball and golfing.

He also became an employer's dream — quick, energetic and responsible. He began working at age 23 at a now-defunct carpetmaker, cleaning gigantic dryers of lint and debris after the carpets were treated with chemicals and flame retardants. For 15 years, he shoveled debris from the dryers, then scrubbed and scoured them.

From that job he moved to McKee Foods' specialty cakes division, where he made Little Debbie pink, creamy heart-shaped cakes and Christmas-tree-shaped brownies.

He and Wendy worked hard so their fantasy retirement could be a reality. They wanted to travel America and first stop would be California's beautiful Pebble Beach golf course. Randy wanted to buy a sports car, a Nissan 370Z for their adventures.

He also maintained a trucker driver's license for extra jobs. When he got a physical required to renew the license in November 2008, a chest X-ray showed fluid in his lungs. Wendy worried that he had contracted pneumonia because he worked in cold parts of the McKee factory without a jacket.

To find the source of the fluid, a doctor made an incision in the side of Randy's torso and inserted a tiny camera. The procedure was to take three hours but in less than an hour, the doctor rushed out and found Wendy. His face was tense and ashen, she recalls.

Randy had mesothelioma, a cancer that can take 30 years or more to incubate and show up. But when it finally strikes, it is fast, painful and fatal.

Wendy's sister-in-law reached out her arms to support Wendy but was too late; Wendy fell to the floor as if struck by a bullet.

Still around

Most Americans probably think asbestos has been outlawed because it is a known carcinogen. They're wrong. Asbestos can be used in construction if it's encased and sealed — inside shingles, for example. It was used in carpeting and can still be found in auto gaskets and brake linings. Last year, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found asbestos in children's crayons made in China and a toy crime scene investigation kit in which the make-believe fingerprint powder had asbestos in it.

Despite the many ads now on TV for lawyers representing mesothelioma victims, there are formidable obstacles to a lawsuit for anyone with the cancer because it takes years for it to incubate in the body before detection.

"Georgia law requires anyone injured by asbestos to prove exposure; an exact date isn't demanded but we usually need to nail down a specific year," says Atlanta product liability attorney Rob Buck, who represents a Ringgold, Ga., mesothelioma victim who worked in the carpet industry for more than a decade.

"Workers may have been exposed to asbestos in more than one workplace and need to sue more than one company. Sometimes defendants argue among themselves over who is most to blame for the mesothelioma. Asbestos damage is cumulative, so the greater or longer the exposure is increases cancer risk."

The Roberts sued Randy's former carpet company employer in 2009. Defense attorneys questioned the couple closely about other possible asbestos exposures. They asked if Randy worked on trucks or rehabbed old homes. The answer was no. The lawyers eventually offered a settlement.

"After the deposition, each carpet company lawyer walked by me as he left and each said, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry' very softly," Wendy recalls, voice shaking.

Wendy joined the California-based nonprofit Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization founded in 2004 by Linda Reinstein, whose husband also died of mesothelioma.

"The ADAO's goal is to eliminate consumer and occupational exposure to asbestos," says Reinstein, who recently attended a fundraiser for a Ringgold, Ga., woman whose husband and son died of mesothelioma after the father worked with asbestos in construction.

"Secondhand contamination can be deadly," she says. "Doctors figured the son contracted the disease by inhaling asbestos fibers from his dad's clothing whenever the boy hugged his father coming home from work."

From fit to frail

Randy had always been fit, routinely lifting 50-pound crates on his McKee job. But mesothelioma tumors swiftly attack the lungs, heart and lining of the abdominal cavity with excruciating pain. Doctors at Vanderbilt University and Emory University gave him world-class treatment, but Randy's body became frail and pain-wracked. His lungs filled with fluid so quickly, he often sounded like a drowning man gasping for air, Wendy says.

"The doctor who was going to treat Randy with chemo used a Sharpee pen to mark up his body to show us where the tumors were and how they were likely to spread," recalls Wendy. "By the time he was done, Randy's torso was covered in a web of black lines.

"There were only three times in his life when I saw Randy cry: our wedding, the birth of our son and the day he was told he had mesothelioma."

Cancer swept rapidly through Randy. Surgeons removed the lobes of his right lung; his diaphragm was replaced with Gore-Tex fabric and his pericardium — the membrane around his heart — was replaced with a transplant from a cow. He endured chemotherapy. Yet he forced himself to move with the aid of a walker and an oxygen tank. He still joked and chatted with his loved ones.

"He got so sick, I lost count of the days I took off work," Wendy says. "I was blessed with a kind and understanding principal."

She has nothing but praise for McKee, saying the company held Randy's job for him throughout his ordeals.

Randy's spirits crashed when his mother died three weeks after his chemo began. He blamed himself for having a disease that caused her too much stress.

Hope

There was a moment when The Monster seemed to retreat in 2010; the tumors had stopped spreading. The Roberts' son, Matthew, and Randy's sister wanted to give Randy his Pebble Beach dream trip, but he was too sick for a long trek. Instead, they surprised him with an invitation to Huntsville, Ala.'s, John Stallworth Foundation Golf Tournament.

The June day was so hot and humid, Randy was going to play just a few holes. He was so overjoyed he played all 18, bringing his oxygen tank and clubs along in the cart. The previous year, a doctor had given him just a few months to live. Randy fought The Monster off an entire year. But that summer, he was attacked by a virulent tumor. He was back in the hospital for treatment. Wendy went home to nap.

"I fell into such a dead sleep, I never heard the phone or my sister banging on my window. At 4 p.m., I woke up and got a call from family saying Randy was in cardiac arrest," Wendy murmurs, as if recounting a nightmare.

Randy had no pulse when Wendy entered his hospital room. She held his hand anyway and thanked him for giving her 19 happy years and for fighting The Monster for three. She told him: "The Monster has won. It's time for you to rest. We'll win in the end."

Randy was 56 when he died.

Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or ledwards@timesfreepress.com.

Legal Yet Lethal

On June 22, President Barack Obama signed into law the bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to evaluate the safety of chemicals and substances widely used in American products starting with those deemed the riskiest, including asbestos. He became the first sitting president to publicly acknowledge that “asbestos is a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year.”

Also on the riskiest list is BPA (Bisphenol A), a chemical found in the lining of cans used to package food, plastic bottles and containers and in the ink on cash register receipts. Studies found BPA is a carcinogen and hormone disrupter. It is banned in most of Europe.

It may shock Americans to learn that of the 10,000 plus chemicals and substances used in food, beauty products, packaging, construction, home/office cleaning and car care, only a small fraction are regulated. Why did Republicans join Democrats in support of a bill to empower the EPA to ban chemicals here and in imports?

“The main reason is the chemical industry wanted this bill and practically wrote it,” said Environmental Institute technical director Tom Laubenthal, who trains companies how to be in compliance with federal laws when they install, remove or dispose of asbestos and other hazardous materials.

“Whenever there is a bill this sweeping that affects an industry, the leaders of the industry are usually the ones with the pens,” he says. “We know a lot more about the dangers of certain chemicals than we did in the 1970s when the EPA was created. That data convinced the industry that the EPA needed the power to ban and regulate.”

Bottomline, BPA poses as much risk to a CEO as to a minimum-wage worker if the chemical is toxic and widespread.

But the new law doesn’t mean battles over bans are over.

“Europe banned lead paint in the 1920s and we didn’t until the 1970s,” Laubenthal noted. “Europe is guided by public health concerns. In America, the EPA and FDA must study the economic impact of a ban on the industry. That is a huge requirement before a substance can be banned.”

The FDA delayed its decision on BPA for years because various industries demanded more time to calculate the cost of swapping in a substitute.

The 1973 Clean Air Act banned most spray-applied asbestos products for fireproofing and insulating purposes, but the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act never lived up to its name, allowing 62,000 chemicals that were legal before 1976 to stay on the market unless the EPA could prove that they posed an “unreasonable risk.”

That loophole had an additional catch: Under the act, the EPA also had to consider how much regulating a chemical would cost before it was allowed to ban a chemical as an “unreasonable risk.” The EPA issued the 1989 Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule with the goal of banning asbestos in manufacturing.

Asbestos industry supporters challenged and overturned the ban in a landmark 1991 lawsuit: Corrosion Proof Fittings vs. the EPA. The industry argued that the wording required the EPA to use the “least burdensome” means available to protect Americans from asbestos and regulation is a less-burdensome option than a partial or complete ban. Asbestos continued to be used in America.

 

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