Living in Detroit–once the center of the auto industry before some of the same corporations that poisoned American workers with asbestos started abandoning them for cheaper labor abroad–you’d think that Dr. Michael Harbut sees a lot of asbestos disease cases. You’d be right. Dr. Harbut is one of the leading medical experts in the U.S. on asbestos-related disease. Perhaps his most important contribution is the creation of the diagnostic standards now approved by the American Thoracic Society. There is no cure for asbestos diseases, but an earlier diagnosis, especially in the case of mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer, can make all the difference when it comes to quality of life. Because the symptoms of mesothelioma are similar to many other respiratory diseases, and because of the nature of the tumor, this particular form of cancer is exceptionally difficult to diagnose. In the past, only a biopsy could confirm such a diagnosis beyond all doubt. Dr. Harbut, who is a co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at Michigan’s Karmanos Cancer Institute, developed a blood test that has been of great help to oncologists in screening for mesothelioma.
The Center recently received a $2 million grant from the federal government for asbestos-related research. Currently, the Center is studying the relationship between asbestos disease and homes that were insulated with the W.R. Grace & Company product Vermiculite. Vermiculite by itself is harmless; however, the Grace corporation’s product was contaminated with tremolite, a deadly form of asbestos. In the 1970s and early 1980s, this substance was used in the construction of 800,000 homes in Michigan alone and perhaps as many as 20 million nationwide. Despite his lofty reputation in medical and academic circles, Dr. Harbut maintains a modest storefront practice in downtown Royal Oak, Michigan, where patients from all over the country come for examinations and treatment. He has a reputation for seeing patients promptly at their appointed time, thorough examinations and diagnoses, and an excellent bedside manner. Among those who have come to Dr. Harbut recently are the maintenance workers whose labors in the tunnels beneath Washington D.C. exposed them to asbestos (see 7 August’s post).