By Don McIntosh
Growing up in Astoria, Oregon, Ann Samuelson remembers her father as a man who worked hard. By day, Stan Grimberg built up his union plumbing business. By night, he took his gillnetting boat out on the Columbia River, earning enough to buy her a horse and provide the family with a good life.
One day when Samuelson was 22, her father was re-piping one of Astoria’s grand historic homes and found himself unable to catch his breath. He went straight to a doctor, who sent him to a hospital. They drained fluid from his lungs and found asbestos fibers in the fluid.
Eighteen months later, Grimberg was dead of what the doctor called “Steve McQueen’s disease” — mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. He was 53.
That was June 6, 1982. Decades later, Samuelson began speaking about what happened to her father.
“I used to not talk about it,” Samuelson said. “It used to scare me to think about it. You watch somebody die of that — it’s a horrible way to die. You suffocate, basically. You’re emaciated, and you suffocate.”
Grimberg had been an active 28-year member of Plumbers Local 51 (which later merged into today’s Local 290). He’d joined the union after serving in the army in Korea. At work he often made a fire retardant paste containing asbestos to put on boiler pipes. He would come home covered in the white dust.
“I remember my mom brushing him off in the driveway,” Samuelson says.
The federal government first began restricting the use of asbestos in 1973. Leaders of the asbestos industry had known for many years that their products were dangerous, but hid those dangers from the workers who handled them. Asbestos-related diseases take decades to develop. In 2005, at the suggestion of a lawyer, Samuelson and a busload of union members from Local 290 went to Salem to try to change Oregon’s statute of limitations to make it easier for survivors to sue the makers of asbestos products. Their bill failed.
But soon thereafter, Samuelson heard about the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization—an all-volunteer group founded by an asbestos widow, Linda Reinstein. Samuelson decided to increase her own awareness, and attended its annual conference in 2009.
“There were other people like me. Other daughters. Spouses. It was a huge awakening,” Samuelson said. “I used to think this was just something I couldn’t pronounce that my dad died of, and I didn’t know anybody else that died of it. Then I saw that it was really a huge problem.”
Samuelson started volunteering with the group, telling her family’s story to civic organizations, and visiting her elected representatives to push them to do more to protect workers and their families from asbestos.
Most asbestos-related products and materials have been banned in the United States since the 1970s. Yet the rate of asbestos-related deaths is continuing to rise, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control — from 2,479 in 1999 to 2,579 in 2015. Part of the problem is that asbestos sticks around; it’s in insulation and other products in homes built before the 1980s.
And the use of asbestos still hasn’t been banned entirely in the United States.
Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici have introduced a bill to ban use of asbestos entirely. Passing it is a top priority for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. For Samuelson and the group’s other volunteers, it’s personal.
“If we don’t speak up and do something, if we don’t collectively get people’s attention, if we don’t ban a substance that we know kills people, more people are going to die like my dad,” Samuelson said.
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