Humans have known about and used asbestos for 4000 years.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were familiar with the material, and regarded its resistance to flame as akin to magic. They reserved asbestos for use in religious purposes, such as wicks for the sacred lamps used by the vestal virgins, priestesses of the goddess Vesta, protector of Rome. Because of its fire resistance, asbestos was also used for cremation robes for emperors and other nobles. The Greek geographer Strabo and Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian and naturalist, both wrote about asbestos. Each of them noted that slaves who worked with the material frequently developed a sickness of the lungs.
While asbestos mining began thousands of years ago, it did not become a serious industry in this country until the end of the 19th century, when manufacturers began to use the material for a variety of industrial products – from insulation for pipes and boilers to heat-resistant material in brakes and clutches. Throughout the early 20th century, uses for asbestos products expanded to hundreds of products and applications, including cement building materials, reinforcement in asbestos-cement products, water and sewage pipes, fire resistant insulation boards, floor tiles and coverings, wallboard, ceiling tiles, and in gas masks, lifts and machinery.
Because asbestos-related disease develops slowly and often presents no symptoms for years after the exposure, the 20th century was well into its second decade before large numbers of workers developed the diseases recognized as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
More than Million Workers Exposed
During World War II, naval shipyards ramped up production, employing many thousands of workers in the construction and repair of ships. In 1943, the peak year for shipbuilding employment in the US, 1,337,000 workers in skilled trades, engineering, clerical, and management jobs worked building and repairing the country’s military and commercial fleets. Asbestos products were used extensively in these enterprises, with shipyard workers often working in enclosed, unventilated spaces. Suppliers of asbestos products and shipyard owners made no disclosure of the lethal risks these workers faced.
In 1944, a Metropolitan Life company report described a workforce of 195 miners at one mine, among whom doctors diagnosed 42 cases of asbestosis, an incidence rate of more than 20 per cent.
Meanwhile, physicians began to voice their concerns. The Johns-Manville Company, a major manufacturer of asbestos products, was aware that asbestos fibers posed a significant health hazard, and began to monitor the health of its workforce. In 1952, Dr Kenneth Smith, medical director of Johns-Manville, urged managers to place warning labels explaining the potential health hazards of asbestos on the company’s products. He was overruled. In 1953 the director of safety for National Gypsum, a major manufacturer of asbestos products, wrote to the Indiana Division of Industrial Hygiene, recommending that workers mixing acoustic plaster wear respirators “because of the asbestos used in the product.” Another National Gypsum executive reviewed the letter, called it was “full of dynamite,” and arranged to have it intercepted before it reached its destination.
A Groundbreaking Study
In 1953, physician and medical researcher Dr Irving Selikoff of New York’s Mt Sinai School of Medicine founded a clinic in Paterson, NJ, and became increasingly concerned about the unusual incidence of lung cancers and mesotheliomas among asbestos workers. With the help of the New York and New Jersey locals of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers, he embarked on a far-reaching study of the health of union members.
He found evidence of asbestosis in over half them, and documented a clear dose-response relationship: the longer the exposure to asbestos, the greater likelihood of a worker’s developing cancer. Selikoff also showed that the death rate among asbestos workers was 25% higher than expected. His groundbreaking study, published in 1964, irrefutably established the dangers of asbestos exposure.
After the publication of Selikoff’s study, neither companies nor their hired experts could reasonably continue to claim ignorance of the dangers. The gate was opened for plaintiffs’ lawyers to file product liability suits on behalf of terminally ill asbestos workers against the manufacturers of asbestos products.
Move to Regulate, Ban Asbestos
Eventually, the federal government took notice of Selikoff’s study and other scientific evidence, and in 1971, the newly-established Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, published the first workplace exposure standard for asbestos. Two years later the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA banned spray-on asbestos insulation as an air pollution hazard.
Recognizing the significant dangers that asbestos presents, the EPA announced its intention in 1979 to work toward a total ban. That rule was promulgated in 1989 – the measure was met with fierce opposition and asbestos companies immediately filed suit. After ten years of research and deliberation, millions of dollars poured into the regulation, and countless hours of work by environmental health officials, a federal court revoked the ban. Products containing asbestos are still sold and manufactured in the United States today.
Industry’s Bad Faith Confirmed
Early on, the toxicity of asbestos was recognized. The Prudential Insurance Company acknowledged the risk in 1918, ceasing to sell life insurance coverage to asbestos workers because of the “health-injurious conditions of the industry.” Since the 1920’s, senior management in companies that mined and processed asbestos, and those that manufactured industrial products containing asbestos knew that exposure to asbestos fibers presented major health hazards for their workers. Yet these companies neglected to inform workers about the health risks – failing to provide adequate ventilation, masks, or other safety equipment that could have reduced their exposure.
When medical researchers and lawyers for workers who developed asbestosis and mesothelioma began to ask hard questions, these corporations did their utmost to prevent the facts from coming to light. From the 1940’s through the late 80’s, major corporations asserted that they knew nothing about asbestos exposure as a cause of fatal disease. The asbestos industry’s cover-up — and refusal to offer compensation to workers dying of asbestos-related disease — is one of the great industrial crimes of the 20th century.
In 1977, plaintiffs lawyers representing injured asbestos workers discovered the papers and correspondence of Sumner Simpson, the president of Raybestos-Manhattan during the 1930’s and 40’s. His letters to his own corporate counsel and to other asbestos companies reveal that industry executives fully understood the dangers of asbestos — and the lethal consequences for workers – and document shocking company decisions to suppress information and mislead workers about the causes of their illnesses.
Asbestos Victims Prevail Court
The release of the Sumner Simpson papers marked a turning point in litigation for asbestos victims – the industry’s protestations of ignorance were essentially revealed as calculated lies. Ruling against Owens Corning in 1999, the Florida Supreme Court wrote that the company had willfully withheld information about the danger of working with its asbestos products: “It would be difficult to envision a more egregious set of circumstances . . . . a blatant disregard for human safety involving large numbers of people put at life-threatening risk.”
Through the 1970’s and 80’s, increasing numbers of asbestos victims sought compensation for their illness and suffering — asbestos attorneys were able to achieve substantial compensation for many workers who had served their employers and their country in good faith.
Asbestos Companies Go Bankrupt
After losing a series of lawsuits, Johns-Manville declared bankruptcy in 1982, the largest US corporation ever to do so. As the tide of litigation continued to rise, other asbestos companies followed the same course. Since then, many other US manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos products have now filed for bankruptcy. Increasingly, the resolution of victims’ claims increasingly rests with bankruptcy courts.
The task now facing plaintiffs’ lawyers, asbestos companies, and congress, is to craft a solution that will address the needs of this generation’s asbestos victims and their families, as well as those of future victims — whose illnesses have not yet been diagnosed.