A Brief History of Asbestos in the United States and Companies’ Failure to Warn

​​​​​​​Asbestos has been used in industrial applications since about 1880. More than 3,000 products using asbestos include fire resistant insulation, gas masks, water and sewage pipes, cement building materials, reinforcement in asbestos-cement products, brakes and clutches, sprayed fire-proofing products, floor tiles and coverings. Boilers and pipes were insulated with asbestos products in factories, steel plants, and power stations, as well as in hospitals, schools, and homes. Railroads and shipbuilding facilities relied on asbestos as a primary insulator. Building contractors used asbestos in industrial and domestic construction for fireproofing, thermal and acoustic insulation, and protection from moisture.

During the last decades of the 19th century, manufacturers began to use asbestos for a variety of industrial products, such as insulation for pipes and boilers and as a heat-resistant material in brakes and clutches. Through the early 20th century, there were hundreds of products and applications, including cement building materials, water and sewage pipes, fire resistant insulation boards, floor tiles and coverings, wallboard, ceiling tiles, gas masks, lifts and machinery.

Early Knowledge of Health Risks

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 many workers developed the diseases we now recognize as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Nonetheless, manufacturers and medical observers had begun to suspect the toxicity of asbestos. The Prudential Insurance Company recognized the risk in 1918, when it ceased to sell life insurance coverage to asbestos workers because of the “health-injurious conditions of the industry.”

By the 1930s, the federal government had taken notice of the problem. In Paul Brodeur’s Outrageous Misconduct, a groundbreaking exposé of the asbestos industry cover-up, he cited a letter from a U.S. Bureau of Mines official in 1933 to asbestos manufacturer Eagle-Picher that stated, “It is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed.”

More than a Million Shipyard Workers Exposed to Asbestos

During World War II, naval shipyards ramped up production, employing thousands of workers in ship construction and repair. In 1943, the peak year for shipbuilding employment in the U.S., more than 1.3 million people built and repaired the country’s military and commercial fleets. Asbestos products were used extensively in these enterprises. Shipyard employees often worked in enclosed, unventilated spaces where the concentration of airborne particles was so high that the air was cloudy with them. Suppliers of asbestos products and shipyard owners made no disclosure of the lethal risks they faced working around asbestos.

Metropolitan Life continued to study worker health in asbestos industries. A company report written in 1944 described a workforce of 195 miners at one mine, among whom doctors diagnosed 42 cases of asbestosis, an incidence rate of more than 20 percent.

Physicians on the payroll began to voice their concern. In 1952, Dr. Kenneth Smith, the Johns-Manville company’s medical director, urged managers to place warning labels explaining the potential health hazards of asbestos on the company’s products. He was overruled. Barry Castleman quotes Dr. Smith in Asbestos, Medical and Legal Aspects when Smith later gave a deposition for a lawsuit against Johns-Manville: “It was a business decision as far as I could understand … the corporation is in business to provide jobs for people and make money for stockholders and they had to take into consideration the effects of everything they did and if the application of a caution label identifying a product as hazardous would cut into sales, there would be serious financial implications.”

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.

Decades of asbestos exposure led thousands of people to suffer from painful and deadly diseases. The asbestos industry had the power to protect their health and safety, and yet they still failed to disclose the dangers. Our asbestos litigation team is motivated by the ability to act as the voice of victims whose lives were irrevocably changed by these companies’ negligence.

If you or a loved one has mesothelioma or another asbestos-caused illness, we can help you take the steps to protect your rights. You can reach our firm at (619) 238-1811.

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