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Friday, March 4, 2016

A history of "safe" products, asbestos


Asbestos, a group of 6 similar minerals, is a fibrous mineral which is flame proof, thus at first it would be a helpful material. It was used as an insulator for steam engines, boilers, ovens and similar items. Asbestos "shingles" were made for the coverings of houses. In 1858 Henry Ward Johns founded the HW Johns Manufacturing company in Manhatten, New York, where he sold a flame proof roofing material. This company merged with the Manville Covering company in 1901, and the Johns Manville company became the largest company in the US to make asbestos products. Asbestos was also used in brake linings, cement, roofing and flooring compounds, spray-on fire retardant coating for steel girders, and thermal insulation. In the 1920s asbestos was linked to asbestosis, a lung disease that made breathing difficult.

It wasn't until the 1970s that people and science began to believe the connection between asbestos and lung disease. Now it's well-known that asbestos causes a cancer in the lungs called mesothelioma.

The Cover-Up

Dozens of companies were involved in the cover-up of the dangers of asbestos and court documents are irrefutable proof of this.
Mr. Brown, do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they dropped dead?’ He said, ‘Yes. We save a lot of money that way.’ Excerpt of 1984 deposition. Meeting between Brown, Johns Manville attorney Vandiver Brown and officials from the asbestos firm Unarco.
It was critical to the industry that the health effects be kept secret, so the industry remained profitable.

  • 1924: First medical paper on asbestos published by William Cooke. 
  • 1929: Asbestos industry leaders asked Dr. Anthony Lanza, assistant medical director at Metropolitan Life Insurance, to investigate asbestos disease among asbestos factory workers. The industry concealed results that showed high rates of asbestos-related illness.
  • 1931: P. Klemperer and C. B. Rabin explained mesothelioma, a cancer that affected the lungs, from asbestos exposure. 
  • 1932: Raybestos-Manhatten and Johns Manville manipulated a study on asbestos workers to minimize the danger to workers. 
  • 1933: Dr. Lanza (see 1929 above) objected to hanging asbestos warning signs at a Johns Manville plant in Illinois because of the potential “legal situation.”
  • 1935: London pathologist Stephen Gloyne suggested asbestos as a cause of mesothelioma. Raybestos-Manhattan president Sumner Simpson wrote, “The less said about asbestos, the better off we are,” in a letter to a Johns Manville attorney.
  • 1945: Metropolitan Life blocked a safety inspection at a Johns Manville asbestos factory in New Jersey.
  • 1949: Dr. Kenneth Smith, future medical director of Johns Manville, advised the company against telling its sick workers they have asbestosis.
  • 1964: Asbestos industry leaders claimed they had no knowledge of asbestos health risks prior to 1964, but confidential documents prove they were lying. 
  • 1966: In a confidential memo, a Bendix Corporation executive wrote, “If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it.”
  • 1971: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant.
While Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (the one that used to use Snoopy it its ads) was not an asbestos business, it worked closely with asbestos companies to conceal the health effects of the toxic mineral. In 1944, the company insured more than a dozen big names in the industry, including Johns Manville, Raybestos-Manhattan, National Gypsum, Fibreboard and Flintkote. A bunch of documents known as the Sumner Simpson Papers, named after the president of Raybestos-Manhattan in the 1930s and 1940s, showed clear evidence that the company attempted to hide asbestos health risks from workers and the general public.

The US military used asbestos a lot in many applications. It was commonly used to insulate hot pipes. It was used a lot in public schools for this application too. They also knew about the dangers of asbestos. C. S. Stephenson, a US Navy of Preventative Medicine, said "We are not protecting the men as we should." After all their service, the veterans safety was ignored. While there is no evidence the US military hid health effects, they still put thousands of veterans at a much higher risk of mesothelioma. In 1975 the US military banned the use of all asbestos materials.


By 1999, the cost of asbestos litigation will exceed $250 billion.  Factors affecting the high cost of litigation:
  1. Asbestos use is widespread. In some countries, 50% of homes used asbestos even after it was banned there. 
  2. Knowledge of health problems was hidden for a long time. 
  3. Impacts were severe: claims were high, and medical problems had a high cost and were frequently fatal. 
  4. It was easy to be exposed to asbestos. Simply inhaling unseen fibers put a person at risk. 
  5. Illnessses happen after decades of exposure. 
  6. The asbestos industry was accused of callous disregard for worker safety and general misconduct, putting company profits ahead of peoples' lives. 

If an industry spends millions of dollars defending itself, something certainly must be wrong. Why defend yourself if you did nothing wrong?

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