Posted on January 27th, 2017
In 1971, asbestos was officially recognized as a hazardous substance by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a series of regulations aimed at limiting exposure in the workplace and banning the manufacturing of certain asbestos-containing products ensued. However, a strong correlation between prolonged occupational asbestos exposure and pulmonary conditions such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma has been first suggested in 1932. A study conducted by two scientists, Dr. Frank V. Meriwether and Dr. Anthony J. Lanza, revealed a shocking statistic: approximately 87% of employees who had regularly been working with asbestos for 15 years or more would develop asbestosis. Numerous other similar findings were subsequently published in medical journals throughout Europe and the U.S.
In fact, the harmful health effects of asbestos exposure have been observed ever since ancient times by Greek and Roman historians. One of the earliest accounts belongs to Strabo, who noticed a "sickness of the lungs" affecting slaves who wove fibers of asbestos into textiles. The geographer also describes the protective measures employed by laborers in his writings. Workers would cover their nose and mouth with a thin membrane made from the bladder of a lamb or goat in order to limit exposure to toxic minerals. Nevertheless, the first scientific discovery indicating a causal relationship between asbestos and pulmonary disease was made in 1900.
Dr. Hubert Montague Murray, a physician affiliated with London's Charing Cross Hospital, found fibers of asbestos in the lungs of a deceased 33-year-old man who had worked in an asbestos textile factory for fourteen years. As a result of heavy exposure, the employee had developed pulmonary fibrosis, which eventually led to his premature death. The evidence gathered by Dr. Murray suggests a strong link between the man's disease and his occupation.
In 1924, the first certain death caused by asbestosis was thoroughly documented in the British Medical Journal by Dr. W. E. Cooke, who also coined the name of the disease. The case involved a 33-year-old woman who had also been working in an asbestos textile factory for thirteen years until she developed a pulmonary disease. During the autopsy, Dr. Cooke discovered a significant amount of asbestos fibers in her lungs. Another early finding belongs to Dr. Henry K. Pancoast of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who noticed lung scarring in 15 asbestos factory workers after examining their X-rays.
Despite the fact that evidence supporting a causal relationship between exposure and pulmonary disease was undeniable and well-known by most asbestos companies by the mid-1930s, it took over four decades for the use of these carcinogenic minerals to be properly regulated. Meanwhile, the influence of asbestos companies expanded to be a multibillion-dollar industry between 1940 and 1980 employing more than 200,000 workers.
During the late 1940s, almost all asbestos manufacturing companies, industries using large amounts of asbestos for their operations as well as their insurance companies had internally acknowledged that asbestos was responsible for lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Surprisingly, rather than adopting safety standards and switching to safer products and protecting their workers, the companies went an extra mile to conceal the truth about asbestos from their employees, the public as well as the media. At a few companies, the results of the health check-up of their workers were deliberately withheld and information about the dangers of asbestos was maintained a secret. Asbestos-related diseases are latent, which means it sometimes takes decades for the symptoms to appear following the initial exposure.
Founded in 1858 by Henry Ward Johns and C.B. Manville, the company became a world leader in the sales of asbestos products during the 1940s.
Nowadays, we have access to multiple documents demonstrating Johns Manville's perpetual efforts to conceal the dangers of exposure to asbestos, most of which have been discovered following various investigations conducted for asbestos lawsuits.
In 1945, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which helped numerous asbestos companies in the U.S. cover up the effects of exposure, succeeded in blocking a safety inspection at Johns Manville.
MetLife convinced government officials that asbestos exposure was under control, although the insurance company was aware of the hazards of asbestos - a previous series of reports sponsored by Johns Manville revealed that over 20% of workers were suffering from asbestosis. MetLife was well aware of this confidential information and agreed to keep it a secret, thus allowing Johns Manville to further endanger the lives of their employees.
The sponsored research focused on evaluating the health risks of asbestos exposure was conducted by the Saranac Laboratory in New York throughout the mid-1930s. An unequivocal link between the toxic minerals and cancer was found, but the company executives instructed researchers not to publish the findings of the study, as their business would have otherwise been compromised. Thereby, all information alluding to the correlation between asbestos and cancer was subsequently erased from the reports.
In 1949, Dr. Kenneth Smith, who was going to become the medical director of the company, informed Lewis H. Brown, Johns Manville's president, that the X-rays of seven asbestos mill workers showed clear signs of asbestosis. However, he callously advised Brown not to let the employees know about their condition, stating that "As long as the man is not disabled, it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace, and the company can benefit from his many years of experience."
Another notable incident that speaks volumes about the outrageous attitude of Johns Manville's executives took place during a meeting between Lewis Brown, Vandiver Brown, the company's attorney, as well as the former's brother, and Charles Roemer, former Chairman of the Paterson, New Jersey Industrial Commission. In 1984, during a deposition, Roemer testified that, after one of the two brothers made a remark that the Unarco managers were "a bunch of fools" for informing their employees regarding their asbestosis diagnoses, he asked them "Mr. Brown, do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they dropped dead?" In response, Lewis Brown casually said "Yes. We save a lot of money that way."
In 1932, Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. and Johns Manville had Dr. Anthony Lanza, who worked for Metropolitan Life at the time, alter the results of his study on asbestos textile workers in order to downplay the non-negligible health effects of asbestos exposure. Thus, the discreditable sentence "It is possible for uncomplicated asbestosis to result fatally." was removed from the report.
Undeniable evidence that the company's executive, Sumner Simpson, played a crucial role in covering up the hazards of asbestos is contained within a series of documents known as The Sumner Simpson Papers. One eloquent example in this respect can be found in a letter from 1935 to Vandiver Brown, Johns Manville's lawyer. The president of Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. wrote: "The less said about asbestos, the better off we are."
Bendix Corporation, established in 1924 by Vincent Bendix, has been manufacturing asbestos-containing friction materials for automobiles ever since, well aware of the serious health implications of these carcinogenic minerals, and continued to do so until 1997. In 1966, Ernie Martin, the company's director of purchases, showed a report predicting that undesirable government regulations would be soon enforced due to the risks associated with asbestos exposure to Noel Hendry, a sales manager at Johns Manville. The latter responded "I suppose we have to bear with people who have nothing better to do than creating alarm, but we are not alarmed, and we live and sleep with the stuff.", although incredible asbestos levels of up to 720 fibers per cubic centimeter of air had previously been detected in Johns Manville's mines and mills throughout Canada.
Nevertheless, the most representative example of Ernie Martin's utmost indifference towards the health of Bendix Corporation's employees is contained within a 1966 letter to Johns Manville. Referring to the escalating asbestos epidemic in the U.S., the director of purchases offered what he considered to be the perfect solution, writing "My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it. There's got to be some cause."
Johns Manville, Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. and Bendix Corporation were far from being the only unethical asbestos companies in the U.S. Exxon, a Texas-based oil refinery, has been aware that asbestos can cause lung cancer, silicosis, fibrosis, and erythema since 1949, while National Gypsum recognized the implications of exposure as well. In a memorandum from 1958, the company states the following: "We know that you will never lose sight of the fact that perhaps the greatest hazard in your plant is with men handling asbestos. Because just as certain as death and taxes are the fact that if you inhale asbestos dust you get asbestosis."
However, one of the most unequivocal documents is a medical report dating from 1964, in which a doctor hired by Philip Carey Manufacturing clearly presents the health hazards of asbestos. The report states that "there is an irrefutable association between asbestos and cancer", as well as that this correlation "has been established for cancer of the lung and for mesothelioma". Moreover, it also provides information regarding environmental and secondary exposure: "There is substantial evidence that cancer and mesothelioma have developed in environmentally exposed groups, i.e., due to air pollution for groups living near asbestos plants and mines. Evidence has been established for cancer developing among members of the household. Mesotheliomas have developed among wives, laundering the work clothes of asbestos workers."
Not only have asbestos companies gone to incredible lengths to keep their workers in the dark about the devastating effects of exposure, but executives have also strived to conceal the dangers from consumers. "Stay unscrupulous, unethical, mean and selling Mono-Kote", prompted an employee of W. R. Grace in a memorandum concerning the sales of the company's Mono-Kote fire-proofing spray. Another memorandum, belonging to Union Carbide, instructs managers to deal with concerned customers aggressively: "If the customer is persistent and threatens to eliminate asbestos - a certain amount of aggressiveness may be effective. Words and catchphrases such as "premature", "irrational" or "avoiding the inevitable" will sometimes turn the table. The main objective is to keep the customer on the defensive, make him justify his position."
By the 1960s, newer developments in the field of both law and medicine exposed the dubious dealings of the asbestos industry and brought an end to the cover-up that would have otherwise continued indefinitely. Asbestos manufacturers were no longer able to keep their conspiracy under wraps, as more and more reputable studies started pointing to the obvious causal relationship between exposure to asbestos and severe pulmonary conditions such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Perhaps, the most conclusive results in this respect were revealed by Dr. Irving Selikoff's research conducted between 1962 and 1963. With the help of his fellow scientists, Dr. Selikoff irrevocably demonstrated the connection between asbestos and lung disease and continued to be a relentless advocate for worker's safety.
A series of strict regulations were enforced throughout the 1970s after the Environmental Protection Agency deemed asbestos as a human carcinogen, and the employment of these hazardous minerals dramatically decreased soon after. Nevertheless, had it not been for the tremendous greed the executives of asbestos companies displayed until the very end in their pursuit of financial prosperity, the lives of thousands of workers could have easily been spared by implementing the appropriate protective measures in the workplace or, better yet, by ceasing asbestos use entirely.