Tens of thousands of blue-collar workers are being robbed of their golden years because of a deadly asbestos-related lung cancer that for decades has been overlooked by researchers and swept under the rug by companies that hid the dangers of the deadly mineral. 

Only recently has medical research come around, and now former plumbers, mechanics and Navy shipbuilders are taking asbestos manufacturers and insurance companies to court for compensation.

Mesothelioma, which is diagnosed in 3,000 Americans a year, is 100 percent fatal and caused directly by asbestos, experts say.

"Some of these companies are being held accountable, but it doesn't make the whole circumstance easier to deal with," said Michael Levesque, a Bay State native who lost his mother to the disease. "It wasn't about money. I'd rather have my mom here."

Pauline Levesque, who lived in Swansea and Raynham, died of mesothelioma in 2001 at age 72, after decades of asbestos exposure from doing her husband's laundry.

Her husband, who was exposed to asbestos as an airplane mechanic, never contracted it. His family reached a confidential settlement with multiple defendants.

"It's a disease that's been ignored for decades," said Chris Hahn, director of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation in California. In the past year, attorney competition for patients suffering from mesothelioma has heated up in the wake of a failed bill in Congress that would have set up one large fund for compensation, preventing more lawsuits.

The history of the asbestos coverup is well-documented and not entirely unlike the tobacco company scandal of the 1980s, said Barry Castleman, a Maryland asbestos expert who wrote "Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects."

He said some companies hid the results of employee health studies and continued to sell and profit from asbestos. The effects of those decisions still linger.

A typical mesothelioma settlement is at least six figures, sometimes more than $1 million, attorneys said. Last month Travelers Cos. Inc., which insured former asbestos contractor ACandS, settled litigation worth $449 million.

"The companies knew plenty about toxic substances. It's extraordinary how much they did know. The workers didn't know. Nobody was telling them. The unions knew little or nothing," Castleman said. The federal government started phasing out asbestos products in the 1980s, but they are still present in older buildings, homes and some auto parts.

Mike Shepard, a Boston attorney who has litigated 500 mesothelioma cases, including the Levesque case, said mesothelioma is still a medical mystery. "Doctors don't know why in some people this horrible disease is triggered and other people could work their entire lives around asbestos and not get this disease," he said.

Only recently have doctors developed better treatment and understanding of mesothelioma, said Dr. Raphael Bueno, a thoracic surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital, home to the International Mesothelioma Program.

He said research and treatment options are lagging far behind other cancers. "It's decades behind breast cancer research," Bueno said. "Mesothelioma is the other side of the spectrum."

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