Global News – Newfoundland woman fighting for her own life after crusading for shipyard workers

(Written by Ross Lord)

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13 May 2015 - For almost a decade, Bertha Smith has been crusading on behalf of former workers in Marystown, sick or dying, from their jobs at the town’s shipyard.

Now, she wonders if she’s a victim, too.

Diagnosed with lung cancer last October, Smith suspects it’s connected to her days of handling her husband’s asbestos-covered work clothes.

Asbestos was widely used in shipbuilding and many other industries, before a growing body of research confirmed its connection to serious and fatal illnesses.

Her everyday routine included shaking out the dust before washing them, and draining the filthy water into their bathtub.

“Then, when the washer was done, of course, you’d do the bathtub, and same thing, you’d use your bare hands for cleaning that,” recalled the 70-year-old.

“So, I was handling it to a great extent, too, with my bare hands. Not realizing the danger of it at the time, because there really wasn’t much education on the dangers of asbestos at the time, in the 70s.”

Her husband, Bill, died in 1997 of a brain tumour. He was 57 years old.

He went to his grave blaming asbestos exposure from his carpentry job at the shipyard, although he was turned down for compensation.

Along with Bernadine Bennett, (the daughter of another shipyard worker who died young) Smith formed the Marystown Shipyard Families Alliance, which has been lobbying the Workplace Health Safety and Compensation Commission to compensate stricken workers.

As of March 6, the Commission said it has received 84 claims for occupational disease from shipyard workers.

Fewer than half, 34, have been accepted, with nine pending a decision.

Even before her diagnosis, Smith and Bennett had been calling for an investigation into the effects on family members and the entire community.

“I know of a couple more families that have had cancer and husbands were working at the shipyard at the time. I’m thinking there is a connection there with the men coming home from the shipyard and bringing it home to their families.”

Memorial University researcher Stephen Bornstein, who has studied asbestos disease extensively, has come to the same conclusion.

“And you might even want to study the community, based on distance from the shipyard. And I think what you are likely to find is that the closer people lived to the shipyard, the more cases you find of asbestos-related disease.”

Bornstein notes almost any exposure to asbestos can cause cancer, and that latency periods of 20 years are not unusual.

But confirming the cause of Smith’s cancer is difficult.

Like many at the time, she was a smoker, a habit made even more hazardous when combined with exposure to cancer-causing asbestos.

“The resulting quantified risk isn’t just the total of one plus the other, it’s much more than that.”

Smith doesn’t pretend to know if cigarettes are to blame, or the asbestos she handled to support her husband’s career.

“It just makes me wonder, is it the cause of my cancer?”

She has undergone radiation and is currently receiving chemotherapy. More chemo is planned, but her doctor is pleased with her progress.

The medication and emotional roller-coaster leaves her frequently exhausted.

The controversy at the yard stems from the 1960s to the early 90s, when the yard was owned by the Newfoundland government.

A private owner has since enacted new safety standards, that have appeased critics.

That’s too late for many of the workers Bertha Smith has been fighting for.

Hopefully, not too late for her.

She’s pursuing legal options for herself, and vows to continue the fight.

“I’m hoping for the best,” she said, forcing a weary, uncertain smile.