Suffolk Closeup: Poison, cancer and the presiding officer

STEVE GRAVANO FILE PHOTO | William Lindsay at his most recent swearing in ceremony on January 3, 2011.

Bill Lindsay, the affable, consensus-seeking presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature since 2006, is a victim of occupational exposure to asbestos. It happened during his prior work as an electrician and an official of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. His job for the union was to inspect job sites at which fellow electricians suspected they had been exposed to asbestos.

At the start of this year, Mr. Lindsay was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer caused by asbestos. The diagnosis came shortly after he had been re-elected unanimously to a seventh term as the legislature’s presiding officer, the number-two position in Suffolk County government after county executive.

Mr. Lindsay was an electrician for 15 years and for 23 years business agent and business manager of Local 25 of the IBEW, which covers electricians in Nassau and Suffolk counties. In working as an electrician, “a lot of the time” he had to “scrape off the asbestos fireproofing” from beams before attaching electrical conduits to them, he recalled last week. “You ended up breathing in asbestos.”

Although “asbestos was outlawed in 1972,” he noted, there was still a lot of it in existing structures. As an IBEW official, he would regularly go to where “my members” were concerned about being exposed to asbestos. “I implemented a program for my members in which a sample of the fireproofing would be sent to a laboratory for examination.” That procedure was needed because “a lot of landlords lied about asbestos,” claiming it didn’t exist in their buildings. The tests presented the proof.

In going repeatedly to the scenes of likely asbestos contamination, Mr. Lindsay was exposed, too, even beyond the exposure he received when he worked as an electrician. Of mesothelioma, he noted, “You only get it from asbestos.”

Indeed, the website is headed: Mesothelioma—The Cancer Caused by Asbestos,” with information on the connection including a 2010 National Academy of Sciences study. “Asbestos is a known carcinogen and is proven to cause mesothelioma,” it states. “Often called ‘asbestos cancer,’ mesothelioma is highly aggressive and is resistant to many standard cancer treatments.”

“The good news,” said Mr. Lindsay last week, “is that on August 11 the doctor told me I was cancer-free. The bad news is that they took out my lung.”

His remaining lung has “really picked up functionality and is operating at 94 percent,” he said. He’s generally “feeling good … It depends on the day.” Mr. Lindsay will be 66 in November. He plans to continue on the legislature through the end of next year, when its term limit of six two-year terms takes effect for him. He then intends to retire. If there is a medical downturn before that, “I would retire immediately.”

Mr. Lindsay, a Holbrook Democrat, has been popular with his peers as presiding officer. His approach as the legislature’s leader, he explained, has been to “have a personal relationship with every legislator and work together to make a better government.”

Millions of people like Mr. Lindsay have been struck by cancer. The World Health Organization determined in 2010 that cancer had become the world’s leading cause of death, overtaking heart disease. Why the cancer epidemic? Report after report attributes it mainly to the toxic substances in the water we drink, the food we eat, the consumer products we use and the air we breathe. As the President’s Cancer Panel stated in a 2010 report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now,” we are “bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.” The panel urged President Obama “most strongly to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity and devastate American lives.” It emphasized that there are safe “alternatives” to cancer-causing agents.

The U.S. government has generally failed to act because of the political power of those who are poisoning people. I wrote a book on this in 1982, “The Poison Conspiracy.” Asbestos, for example, was known as a carcinogen as far back as 1929 and nothing was done, even though safe alternatives were always available.

As for the corporations responsible, consider Johns Manville, the global giant in manufacturing asbestos products. In 1982, faced with thousands of asbestos injury lawsuits, it declared bankruptcy to protect itself. It remains in the insulation business today.