As soon as asbestos became an industrial commodity in the late 19th century, the clock began ticking. Sooner or later, the public would find out just how deadly this carcinogenic substance really was.
The only question was how long it would take, and how many people would have to suffer needlessly, before asbestos companies were no longer able to hide and deny a growing body of medical research proving the health hazards of asbestos.
From the early 1900s through the 1970s, the asbestos industry would find itself in a golden era — hailing asbestos a “miracle mineral” due to its strength and natural resistance to fire, heat and electricity.
During the first half of the twentieth century, most new buildings, vehicles, ships and aircraft were made with asbestos. Floor tiles, cement, textiles, car parts, valves and insulation — all these asbestos products capitalized on the strength and fire-resistance of crystalline asbestos.
While asbestos products continued to proliferate in the United States and around the world, companies went to great lengths to conceal emerging science showing the deadly health risks of asbestos. Credible medical research dated back to at least 1900, when an English doctor uncovered a string of unusual deaths among textile workers who worked directly with asbestos.
Around this time, the Johns Manville Company grew into one of the largest asbestos companies in the world. Based in Wisconsin, the company had mining and production operations throughout the United States.
Employees of Johns Manville started claiming asbestos-related disabilities as early as the 1920s, and in 1929 the first asbestos-related lawsuit was filed in New Jersey by a woman named Anna Pirskowski, an employee of Johns Manville.
Unfortunately, in these early days of asbestos-related litigation, Pirkowski’s lawsuit proved unsuccessful.
World War II and Asbestos in the U.S. Military
In the United Kingdom, another major hub of asbestos mining and asbestos-product manufacturing, medical researchers published a report in 1930 irrefutably linking the inhalation of asbestos fibers to novel pulmonary diseases. In the years to come, these diseases would become known as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
The report led to minor regulations for the asbestos industry in the United Kingdom, but similar restrictions would not reach the United States for decades to come.
With the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. asbestos market blossomed. The U.S. Navy, in particular, required strong fireproofing materials that could be used to insulate boilers, engines, pipes and other ship components.
Hiding their knowledge of the health risks of asbestos, companies sold countless asbestos-containing products to the U.S. military, exposing a generation of soldiers to the deadly carcinogen. By 1942, the United States was consuming roughly 60 percent of all asbestos production in the world.
As a result, shipyards all along the American coastlines would become a major source of asbestos contamination and exposure. Due in large part to this trend, it’s estimated roughly one-third of all mesothelioma patients are U.S. veterans or former shipyard workers.
Despite Clear Evidence, Asbestos Use Peaks
After the war, asbestos production continued, even as more studies emerged revealing the devastating impact of asbestos on public health. In 1949, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that asbestos was linked to occupational cancer. The Encyclopedia Britannica followed suit in 1952.
By 1955, there was sufficient evidence to establish an epidemiological link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer, and by the 1960s, the jury was no longer out. The evidence was clear: Exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, among other pulmonary illnesses.
However, companies in the asbestos industry continued to do what they’d already been doing for decades:
- Concealing the information from their workers and the public
- Misinforming people about the truth of asbestos’s carcinogenic nature
- Providing inadequate protection to workers who handled asbestos-containing products
- Fighting regulation efforts in Congress
For these corporations, asbestos was cheap and abundant, easily mineable and simply far too profitable to seek safer alternatives — so they continued to lie and misinform.
The Johns Manville Company, for example, rebuffed attempts by life insurers to hang warning signs that would inform workers about the dangers of breathing or ingesting asbestos fibers.
The company’s own internal research, meanwhile, showed executives knew asbestos was carcinogenic as far back as the 1930s. Test results showing asbestosis in a whopping 20 percent of workers were not shared with staff, and a policy of total secrecy gripped the company, even as more and more workers got sick.
In 1970, following the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), regulators were given the authority to limit asbestos under the Clean Air Act. The following year saw the first successful personal injury claim related to asbestos exposure by a U.S. worker.
Asbestos consumption peaked in 1973, when U.S. companies imported 803,000 metric tons of asbestos. As the decade progressed, the EPA, responding to the now undeniable evidence, began introducing ever tighter regulations on the industrial uses of asbestos.
At the same time, the public grew outraged. As Americans were dying from devastating asbestos-related diseases, the public also learned that the asbestos industry had known about the harms of asbestos for decades.
The Johns Manville Company finally buckled under the weight of asbestos litigation, filing for bankruptcy in 1982 and setting aside $2.5 billion in an asbestos trust fund in 1988 to compensate former workers who had been exposed to asbestos and developed diseases.
U.S. Asbestos Ban Overturned
Following a 10-year study, the EPA moved to phase out virtually all uses of asbestos in 1989. But two years later, pressured by the corporations in the asbestos industry, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the EPA’s asbestos ban.
The court ruling was a major blow to sick workers, their families and public health advocates, as it outlined legal avenues for asbestos importation and production that have led to its current prevalence. In fact, sadly, asbestos can still be found in dozens of products in the United States.
While asbestos is currently regulated in the United States, it remains legal for importation and use in certain products. Asbestos lawsuits offer individuals impacted by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases a means of holding companies like Johns Manville accountable for their deceit, gross negligence and indifference to the suffering of their own employees and the public.
In our next — and final — installment on the history of asbestos, we’ll take a look at the modern use of asbestos, including its current legal status, the growing hazards it presents in aging buildings throughout the country, and how it still threatens an unprecedented wave of new cancer cases among workers and the public.
Visit all of our installments on the history of asbestos by clicking on any of the links below:
- History of Asbestos, Pt. 1: Asbestos in the Ancient World
- History of Asbestos, Pt. 2: Asbestos in the Middle Ages
- History of Asbestos, Pt. 3: Asbestos in the Industrial Age
- History of Asbestos, Pt. 5: Asbestos in the Present Day (Coming Soon)
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