Former state senator exposed to asbestos four decades ago now paying with his life
From the dirtiest city in America to one of the most livable, Chattanooga's turnaround story is well known.
Part of the city's renaissance has involved developers breathing new life into old buildings. Many of those old buildings turned out to be full of airborne poison.
NewsChannel 9's Kelsey Bagwell began digging into the problem when she first brought us the story of asbestos, discovered in the downtown library back in August.
Since then, she's learned more about the effects of ingesting that poison from a man who is now paying with his life.
That man is Ray Albright, and you may remember his name. He shaped legislation for years as a vital member of Chattanooga's delegation in the Tennessee General Assembly. Albright's run as a Tennessee legislator came to a close in 1994.
His exposure to asbestos in the workplace decades before that now leaves him struggling to fill his lungs.
"I planned my life, my wife and I did, to have a good life. A life that we wouldn't have any problem. It just doesn't work out," he says.
In 1953, Albright took a job at Combustion Engineering to provide for his growing family. For nineteen years, he made covers for boilers by cutting steel with a band saw; a process that spewed deadly dust into the air.
"It was so thick, you couldn't see ten feet in front of you, hardly," he adds.
Albright had no idea that thick dust contained asbestos. He says the other workers didn't either. They didn't even know what asbestos was. But forty years later, Albright was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer in the lungs.
"Asbestos was the cause of this. And, you don't know it, but forty years later, you find out what you were exposed to was extremely dangerous."
You can hear the struggle to speak, to breathe, in his voice.
Albright believes the management at Combustion knew about the dangers of asbestos, and there is reason to believe he's right. The U.S. Department of Labor has fined other companies millions of dollars for exposing workers without protection.
Albright is one of hundreds of clients who have sued Combustion and others. He's represented by attorney Jimmy Rodgers.
"They're in enjoyment of retirement, enjoying their grand kids and traveling, or that's their ideas, typically. Then they get hit with that type of diagnosis," says Rodgers.
Albright isn't alone. Chattanooga's former life as a manufacturing city has resulted in hundreds of cases like his.
"There was just a large concentration of industrial job sites," Rodgers adds.
Asbestos wasn't just a problem on the assembly line. For decades, it was also used to insulate and fire-proof buildings. Most of the city's older structures have it, according to removal expert, David Bashor.
"Pretty much from the 20's through the 70's, almost all the buildings had some form of asbestos in them. Almost always," says Bashor.
When intact, asbestos isn't a hazard. But when it's broken into dust, like during a renovation, it becomes dangerous. Bashor's job is to remove the asbestos before renovation begins. Working on Chattanooga's buildings keeps him busy.
"Chattanooga is an older city. So older cities are going to have higher amounts of asbestos present," he says.
There are now strict rules from the Environmental Protection Agency about asbestos.
But for many already diagnosed, it's decades too late.
Albright admits he can't properly say the name of the disease that is taking his life.
"If I stay around long enough, I'll learn to pronounce that thing," he jokes.
He's filed lawsuits to hold his former employers accountable for cutting short the "good life" he planned for himself many years ago.
"There's no cure for what I have. And you're going to die. It's just a matter of time," he says.
Albright's case is still pending. He tells us his doctor estimates he has another six months to live.