Center for Asbestos Safety

Asbestos: The Industry's Cover-ups

The name asbestos comes from a Greek term meaning ``inextinguishable.'' It's mined from the earth and is quite plentiful and inexpensive. Although a mineral, asbestos can be woven into a cloth just like cotton or linen. It was first mined in Canada in the late nineteenth century.

Asbestos exhibits desirable qualities that architects and engineers love to employ in buildings. It resists heat, electricity, corrosion and decay. And it has remarkable tensile strength. This means it also found many applications in other industrial and military application, including on ships, with their limited space and rough operating environment.

Asbestos was used widely for many applications as inventors incorporated it into their products. Demand for asbestos grew as thermal insulation for ships, where it was used as pipe covering, cloth to wrap the pipe covering and cement powder poured from bags and mixed with water. It was also used extensively in textile manufacturing and building construction.

The 1920's were a growth period for the asbestos industry, as worldwide production jumped to 500,000 metric tons in 1929. It ultimately would soar to 5 million tons per year.

In 1930, a British physician and a factory inspector presented to Parliament a report based on a two-year study of workers in a British asbestos textile factory. The report concluded that asbestos causes ``interference with the general efficiency of the lungs'' and recommended dust-control procedures to prevent disease.

The report noted that fibrosis and death could be caused by exposure to asbestos, although the ill effects might not show up for many years later.

The findings were reprinted in American medical journals and asbestos companies knew of the dangers that their products presented.

In 1933, eleven workers at Johns-Manville Corp's Manville, N.J., plant contracted asbestosis and demanded compensation. The company was at that time the world's largest producer of asbestos products.

The company paid $30,000 to settle the claims, but only with the stipulation that the workers' attorney would not bring new actions against the corporation.

In 1935, A.S. Rossiter, the editor of ``Asbestos,'' an industry trade magazine, wrote to Sumner Simpson, president of Raybestos-Manhattan Inc., the nation's second-largest purveyor of asbestos goods: "Always you have requested that for certain obvious reasons we publish nothing (about asbestosis), and, naturally your wishes have been respected.''

What asbestos industry executives knew and when they knew it is a matter of public record, having come to light in the late 1970s under asbestos-disease lawsuits. The industry-wide cover-up of asbestos hazards has been thoroughly documented.

In 1979, federal Judge John A. MacKenzie said: "The manufacturers put a lethal risk of harm in (the plaintiff's) work environment, then allowed him unwittingly to confront the risk with tragic results, on a daily basis.''

Do you think you were exposed? Click here for ideas about what to do next.

Asbestos training requirements.

Center for Asbestos
Safety in the Workplace