If you worked at one of the old vermiculite ore processing plants in downtown Salt Lake City, call the Utah Department of Health at 538-6191. Your life may depend on it.

And while you’re on the phone, tell them “Thanks a lot.” Say it sarcastically. The health department has known for at least six years that former employees could contract respiratory diseases – asbestosis, mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer – related to the inhalation of asbestos fibers from ore mined from a unique, asbestos-laden vein in Libby, Mont., and processed at the facilities, which closed in the 1980s. Yet it never went public in its search.

Beginning in 2001, as part of a federally funded study to determine if cancer clusters exist in a two-mile radius of the plants, the department mounted a fruitless search for former employees, who had the greatest asbestos exposure and run the highest risk.

Unable to acquire payroll records from the defunct owner, W.R. Grace and Co., the department called the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration. It contacted the Utah Tax Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and various business licensing agencies. But it never called the news media, which would have publicized the warnings to former employees for free.

Now, six years later, after the study has concluded and news accounts were written, several former employees have learned of the danger and contacted the health department.

They are advised to see a physician, and are questioned about the whereabouts of their co-workers. But with diseases for which early detection is crucial to survival, the department shouldn’t have been dragging its feet.

Dr. Wayne Ball, the lead epidemiologist at the department, said contacting the media during the study is not part of the “procedure.” He said the study took six years and the final reports were delayed because the federal grant only paid for a part-time employee. He said everything but “Sorry.”

We have our suspicions, unconfirmed, about why they didn’t put the word out to the public. They didn’t want to create a panic. Even a $7.1 million federal super fund cleanup of the plant sites at 333 W. 100 South and 733 W. 800 South was kept quiet. And while it was finally determined that people who lived around the plants are probably not at risk, former employees have been walking around with time bombs ticking in their chests.

The health department needs to do another study, an examination of the way it does business. It needs to concentrate on preventing deaths, not just studying them.

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