06/01/2010 // Chicago, IL, USA // Cooney & Conway // Mesothelioma attorneys: Cooney & Conway

Three former executives of Firm Build, a defunct California nonprofit organization, were arrested May 19, charged with knowingly exposing high school students to asbestos under the guise of a job-training program. Investigators with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office say that at least five—and as many as 80—teens were involved.

The three men accused—Rudy Buendia III, 47; Patrick Bowman, 43; and Joseph Cuellar, 70—each face ten felony counts: five counts of child endangerment and five counts of knowingly exposing someone to harmful materials.

Asbestos—with heat- and fire-resistant properties that have made it a popular material in the building industry—has long been linked to deadly diseases including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a nearly always fatal cancer of the protective lining covering many internal organs.

Asbestos is particularly hazardous when airborne, making demolition and renovation projects risky when asbestos is present. The material can easily be stirred up, and asbestos fibers and particles inhaled by anyone nearby.

Because many asbestos-related diseases—specifically, mesothelioma—do not develop for decades after exposure, the risks are particularly acute for children, who may develop the fatal conditions in the prime of their lives. Indeed, many of the most significant mesothelioma lawsuits to be litigated or settled have involved victims who became sick many years after asbestos exposure.

In this Merced County, Calif., case, investigators with the district attorney’s office interviewed former students and two former Firm Build job coaches. The victims—16 and 17 years old at the time—removed asbestos from September 2005 to March 2006 at the Automotive Training Center, 2245 Jetstream Drive, under the direction of Firm Build. A continual, months-long period of asbestos exposure, experts say, heightens the health risks.

Prosecutors say the students removed asbestos floor tiles and insulation from pipes inside the building. Even more worrisome, they demolished the tiles with hammers and other tools, releasing asbestos fibers and particles into the air, where they could easily be inhaled. Students told investigators that the asbestos dust inside the building was so thick that they sometimes had to leave for fresh air.

Strict regulations dictate the conditions under which workers can remove asbestos from a site, and workers handling the cancer-causing substance are expected to be provided with suitable training and safety gear, such as protective suits. But the students say they were supplied only with cotton masks, hard hats, and goggles—equipment that falls far short of standard practice.

“We are simply at a loss to understand why the appropriate safeguards would not have been taken,” says Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II. “These kids never bargained for this kind of problem.”

“The sad fact of the matter is that some of these students, who were kids when they participated in these programs, may spend the rest of their lives wondering whether they will develop cancer or lung damage,” Morse added. “It is frankly appalling that anyone would play Russian roulette with the health of teenagers simply to cut corners on a construction project.”

This news story was brought to you by the asbestos lawyers of Cooney & Conway, a nationally recognized firm that has brought recovery—and justice—to victims of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases. For over 50 years, we’ve been advocates for those needlessly injured by the negligence of others, and have successfully litigated and settled some of the country’s most significant asbestos lawsuits

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