What is asbestos?
The word asbestos comes from the Greek meaning unquenchable or indestructible. That is an appropriate definition; asbestos actually refers to a group of naturally occurring minerals with outstanding heat-resistant qualities.
Asbestos is nearly impervious to heat, flame, salt water, chemical corrosion or biological processes. It has low electrical conductivity along with a high tensile strength, making it flexible and strong. Its properties make it perfect for being spun or woven into blankets of fireproof and insulation material. Asbestos fibers can also be mixed into products to make them stronger, more flexible and heat resistant.
Thanks to those heat-resistant and insulating properties, asbestos was also used in many buildings built before 1980. However, no matter how fireproof asbestos materials were in the past or in the present, it is still responsible for killing thousands of people. It protects victims from being burned on the outside, but the damage asbestos does to the lungs and other internal organs is devastating.
Asbestos has long been considered a magic mineral because of these many useful properties, and asbestos has been incorporated into more than 3,000 different industrial and household products.
Time and again, it has been proved the victims of mesothelioma are those who worked long, hard years in America’s factories, mines, construction and other laborious jobs. The asbestos particles they inhaled while working slowly deteriorated the linings of their lungs and hearts. And these particles eventually led to mesothelioma cancer.
Perhaps the saddest thing about this disease is that many of the companies employing these hardworking men and women knew about the dangers of asbestos––and did nothing to protect their employees. And many workers brought asbestos particles home on their clothes, unknowingly putting their spouses and children in danger of asbestos exposure.
Types of asbestos
There are six different types of asbestos that are divided into two basic groups: serpentine and amphibole. Some, but not all, of these asbestos types have been used commercially.
The serpentine group gets its name from the curved shape of the fibers, and includes only one type of asbestos: chrysotile. Chrysotile was commonly called white asbestos and was significantly popular with industry, particularly in the United States. Accounting for more than 90 percent of the commercially used asbestos in the United States, most of the chrysotile asbestos was mined in Canada, Africa and the former U.S.S.R.
Amphibole asbestos fibers are straight, needlelike fibers. The amphibole group includes amosite (also called cummingtonite-grunerite or brown asbestos), crocidilite (also called riebeckite or blue asbestos), tremolite,anthophyllite and actinolite. But only crocidilite and amosite were intentionally incorporated into commercial products.
Noncommercial amphibole fibers (tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite) were sometimes present as contaminants in commercially used products containing chrysotile asbestos, vermiculite and talc.
The amphiboles were commonly mined in southern Africa and Australia.
Asbestos fibers are microscopically small fibers—hundreds of times more fine than a human hair. When released into the air, these fibers remain airborne for extended periods of time. Sweeping or even regular vacuuming easily agitates the asbestos fibers. In fact, vacuuming re-suspends the fibers because they are so small they escape back into the air right through a regular vacuum bag. Even worse, asbestos fibers are too small to be seen or felt. Therein lies its danger.
History of asbestos
One of the earliest accounts of using asbestos is from the fourth or fifth century B.C., in the wick of a gold lamp crafted for the goddess Athena. Another account describes cloth made of asbestos that was used as a funerary cloth to retain the ashes of the dead during cremation. According to an ancient historian named Pliny, asbestos was also used in a similar fashion in the funeral dress for kings of the period.
Famed navigator and explorer Marco Polo (circa 1250) made reference to a cloth in the northern provinces of the Great Kahn. He characterized its property as being unconsumed and purified in fire.
Just 500 years later, the discovery of large deposits of asbestos in the Ural Mountains of western Russia ignited the industrial use of asbestos. Although on a limited scale, immediately after the discovery factories began making asbestos products, including handbags, gloves, socks and textiles.
The next few centuries saw increased mining operations, along with the Industrial Revolution, providing the tinderbox for the use of asbestos and the public health crises that resulted:
- In 1860, chrysotile asbestos was discovered in Quebec, Canada. Mining of these chrysotile deposits started in 1878, with 50 tons being produced during this mine’s first year of operation.
- In 1815, crocidilite asbestos was discovered in South Africa. Mining of larger amounts of South African fibers began around 1910.
- Another type of asbestos called amosite was discovered in central Transvaal in 1907, and the mining operations began in approximately 1916.
- The 20th century and modern industry catapulted the use of asbestos in industrial and home products.
- Asbestos continues to be used in many products today.
Occupational and environmental exposure to asbestos
The wide incorporation of asbestos into industrial and commercial products has exposed millions of American workers and their families to a toxin proved to both scar the lungs and cause a variety of cancers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that in every case exposure to asbestos is deleterious to human health.
Approximately 27.5 million workers were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979. Of these, almost 19 million are believed to have suffered heavy exposure in a variety of industrial and construction environments. Estimates are that nearly 900,000 workers have been exposed to asbestos through the auto industry alone, specifically due to brake and clutch work.
Alarmingly, the asbestos problem is far from behind us. One estimate claims that 1.2 billion square feet of asbestos-containing insulation is housed in 190,000 buildings in the United States. According to one estimate from the Asbestos Information Association, there are more than 3,000 discrete uses of asbestos. That means that workers may have unknowingly been exposed to asbestos in a wide range of job sites and trades, ranging from milling and mining to manufacturing and construction industries, as well as shipbuilding and repair.
Hazardous exposures to asbestos are not just specific to job sites. Offsite releases from the mining, milling and manufacture of asbestos products can occur in residents in nearby communities. It has been estimated that the offsite release from construction sites can result in environmental asbestos levels 100 times more than natural environmental levels.
Problems with asbestos exposure
The danger of asbestos exposure arises from inhaling and swallowing tiny dust particles and fibers. Those particles are released when asbestos is broken up or disturbed in any way. Once the asbestos fibers have been inhaled or swallowed, they lodge in the lining around the lungs, heart or abdominal cavity,
while going unnoticed for decades. Eventually, they cause scarring and cell changes that can become a malignant cancer known as mesothelioma. Even when mesothelioma does not develop, asbestosis and other asbestos-related conditions could cause pain, restricted breathing or other health difficulties.
How was I exposed?
Knowing the facts about asbestos exposure will help you protect yourself and your loved ones. Many governments, including the United States’, have compiled fact sheets, guidelines and laws for handling and reporting asbestos exposure, as well as strict guidelines for asbestos removal and abatement. Being informed about asbestos and the dangers of exposure can help save your life.
Asbestos exposure can happen in a variety of ways through working with or around asbestos. This can also include exposure from asbestos in your house if built decades ago, older buildings, or even from a nearby asbestos plant.
How much asbestos a person was exposed to and how long the exposure lasted are risk factors of developing mesothelioma. People exposed from an early age, for a long period of time and at higher levels are more likely to develop this cancer. And mesothelioma takes a long time to develop. The time between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually between 20 and 50 years. Unfortunately, the risk of mesothelioma does not go down over time after the exposure to asbestos stops. The risk appears to be life-long.
What to do if exposed to asbestos
The earliest effects of mesothelioma are often mistaken for the symptoms of a cold, virus or flu, which means a diagnosis isn’t made until the disease has progressed beyond the treatable stage. Because of this, anyone who worked or currently works in a job with a high risk of asbestos exposure should have regular medical checkups that include lung x-rays, and be especially watchful for respiratory ailments that may be the earliest symptoms of mesothelioma.
Everyone knows smoking increases your chance of lung cancer, but the combination of asbestos and smoking can cause the risk of lung cancer to increase even more. If you were ever exposed to asbestos and are currently smoking, you can significantly decrease the risk of developing a form of lung cancer by quitting now.
Asbestos was one of the most widely used industrial minerals through the early to mid-1970s. The companies that mined, distributed and used asbestos were well aware of the dangers to their workers. Studies dating back to the 1920s showed a link between asbestos and cancer. Instead of warning them and providing safer handling, many industries deliberately hid those dangers from the public, their workers and the government. By doing so, they exposed hundreds of thousands of workers and their families to a deadly carcinogen.
Because these companies were aware of the dangers of asbestos and intentionally did nothing to warn or protect their workers, they may be legally liable for compensating workers and their families who became ill because of asbestos.
If you believe you or a family member became ill because of asbestos exposure, Levin Simes is an experienced law firm in handling asbestos-related cases and will evaluate your claim to help you get the compensation you deserve.
Industry knowledge of the risk
The average person isn’t in the habit of reading journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and LANCET, a leading global medical journal. However, the companies mining
and manufacturing, or using, asbestos were—or certainly should have been.
More than 700 articles were available in medical and scientific literature prior to 1964. Policy dictates the industry not be rewarded for ignoring this evidence to the extent it did. Companies are responsible for informing and warning the public on known dangers of their products and, where possible, to make those products safer. The question we should ask is not simply, “What did the scientists and experts know?” Rather, “What did manufacturers actually know, or should have known, to satisfy their duty to the public?”
For several decades the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products and many of the companies that employed the men and women who worked with and around those products knowingly exposed workers to asbestos hazards. The testimony of Charles H. Roemer best illustrates the industry’s callous attitude. Roemer, a former employee of Unarco, described a meeting between Unarco officials and Johns-Manville President Lewis Brown and his brother, Vandiver Brown, in the early 1940s:
“I’ll never forget, I turned to Mr. Brown, one of the Browns made this crack (that Unarco managers were a bunch of fools for notifying employees who had asbestosis), and I said, ‘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.’”1
This unsympathetic attitude continually shows itself in industry documents. The companies that manufactured and used asbestos products had many sources of information exposing the hazards of asbestos: scientific and medical literature, industry trade organizations, and corporate documents from industry members.
The scientific and medical literature
Ignorance is one argument some companies use about the asbestos-containing products they once made or used. They maintain they were unaware of the risks of asbestos and didn’t know their products would kill or injure people. So if they didn’t actually know about the dangers of their products, they shouldn’t be held responsible for the harm their asbestos products caused to generations of Americans.
But they did know the dangers. And according to the law in most states, manufacturers have a duty to the public to know the risk of their products and take measures to protect the public from those risks.
The law presumes manufacturers are experts on their products. They are expected to know anything the scientific community knows relevant to their products. They are supposed to test their products. If dangerous, manufacturers are required to make their products safe, or warn about the dangers so consumers can take steps to protect themselves.
Product manufacturers are in the best position to investigate potential dangers of their products andshould know best how to make them safe. If, however, they were responsible only for the dangers they actually knew about, there would be no incentive for them to investigate and recognize any dangers from their products. Ignorance would then be a valid defense because they would be better off knowing nothing and leaving the people injured to pay the price. Therefore, companies are not allowed to profit from ignoring potential hazards of the products they sell to the public.
How long has it been known that asbestos poses a risk? In 1897, a Vienna physician wrote that emaciation and pulmonary problems in asbestos weavers and their families removed any doubt that asbestos inhalation was the cause. Just a year later, British factory inspectors determined that asbestos exposure was a health risk for workers.
Within 20 years more evidence began to mount. In 1906, a London physician found asbestos fibers in the lungs of a 33-year-old asbestos textile worker who died from pulmonary fibrosis (scarring in his lungs). In 1912, scientists used animal studies to show asbestos inhalation causes pulmonary fibrosis. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 1918 the “unusually high death rate” among asbestos workers.
As the evidence mounted, scientists began to focus on asbestos in the 1920s. The British Medical Journal in 1924 published a series of papers on asbestosis—the disease named for the mineral that causes it. In their historic report published in 1930, two scientists, Drs. Merewether and Price, found a “definite occupational risk among asbestos workers as a class” in the asbestos textile industry. Highlights from this report were republished in two prominent medical journals, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and LANCET, including this alarming conclusion that “80% of asbestos workers employed for 20 years or more develop asbestosis.”
By 1930 it was a known fact that asbestos inhalation was a serious health hazard. The information was widely available to all companies and industries, and the case against exposure to asbestos published in medical and scientific literature grew exponentially. While individual workers had no idea about the dangers, asbestos manufacturers did.
It was also during the 1930s that science connected asbestos and cancer. Several articles between 1933 and 1936 linked asbestos exposure with cancer, and German physicians identified lung cancer as an occupational disease of asbestos workers in 1938. By the end of World War II in 1945, the medical and scientific communities “in all countries” accepted that asbestos was a carcinogen. Continued studies showed by 1955 that asbestos exposure increases a worker’s risk of lung cancer ten-fold. And the link between mesothelioma and asbestos was first reported in 1960.
Finally, in 1964, Dr. Irving Selikoff presented a now famous study of insulators at a well-attended conference in New York City. This study broke out from the scientific and medical community and brought the scientific information about the health hazards of asbestos straight into the popular press.
Despite an astonishing knowledge base of the known dangers of asbestos exposure, asbestos mining and production continued to grow in 1960s and 1970s, reaching a peak of 45 million tons around 1980.
Even more shocking, worldwide asbestos mining and production in 2000 produced more than
20 million tons—higher than it was in 1960.
Industry trade organizations
The global asbestos industry is formally united through the Asbestos International Association, with headquarters in London and member firms from more than 30 countries. Trade organizations such as this produced a surprising number of periodicals, reports and other documents. Large groups like the AIA produced published reports and organized committees that held conferences on such topics as industrial hygiene, workers’ compensation and warning labels.
However, these manufacturer groups also sponsored research where the results were never published nor alluded to in any literature. One of the earliest asbestos trade organizations was the Industrial Hygiene Foundation, founded in 1936 under the support of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research. The Industrial Hygiene Foundation was promoted by the industry as a creature of industry and the one institution upon which employers could rely completely for a sympathetic appreciation of their viewpoint.
Other major trade organizations included the following:
- Asbestos Textile Institute
- Magnesia Insulation Manufacturers Association
- National Insulation Manufacturers Association
- Asbestosis Research Council
- Asbestos International Association
- Resilient Floor Covering Institute
- National Safety Council
- Asbestos Textile Institute
- Asbestos Cement Products Association
- Asbestos Cement Pipe Producers Association
- Friction Materials Standards Institute
- Asbestos Information Association
- Asbestos Paper Manufacturers Association
- Asbestos Brake Lining Association
- Thermal Insulation Manufacturers Association
- The National Safety Council
- The Chemical Manufacturers Association
All told, there were more than 100 such associations that served the asbestos industry.
Industry-funded studies revealed known links between asbestos and cancer. Tragically, the asbestos industry chose to protect profits and made the conscious decision to conceal this information from the public, destroying countless lives.
The Saranac Laboratory for Research on Tuberculosis was a principal research facility used by the asbestos industry. The laboratory was originally adjunct to a sanatorium in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. From the early 1920s, it had facilities in place for animal experimentation with dusts to study the synergistic effects of silicosis and tuberculosis. As a result, the laboratory was ideal for investigating the effects
of asbestos fibers.
Some of the earliest work on asbestos from Saranac produced a series of documents now known as the Sumner Simpson Papers. In 1936, several asbestos companies joined together to fund a research contract at Saranac, a contract that was subsequently renewed every year for 10 years.
The Saranac studies confirmed a demonstrated link between asbestos exposure and cancer. However, a January 1947 meeting between members of the companies that funded this research concluded that “there would be no publication of the research of experiments without [the group’s] consent,” and that any publication “would not include any objectionable material … as, for example, any relation between asbestos and cancer.”
The resulting publication on asbestos dust experiments suppressed any evidence linking cancer to asbestos exposure, and the final agreement among the underwriters of the studies was that “the reference to cancerand tumors should be deleted.” This information would have proved invaluable to American workers but was instead buried and kept from the public.
Sumner Simpson was the president of Raybestos-Manhattan Inc. in the 1930s and 1940s. His correspondence with other heads in the asbestos industry exemplifies the industry’s many efforts to suppress evidence regarding the hazards of asbestos exposure.
For example, in 1935 Mr. Simpson wrote Vandiver Brown, attorney for Johns-Manville Corporation, “The less said about asbestos, the better off we [the asbestos industry] are.” Companies such as Raybestos-Manhattan and individuals such as Mr. Simpson also placed great pressure on trade industry publications, including Asbestos Magazine. Letters from Asbestos Magazine to Mr. Simpson document the magazine’s acquiescence to Mr. Simpson’s request that the magazine publish nothing about the hazards of asbestos.
In 1939, the publisher of Asbestos Magazine wrote in a letter to Sumner Simpson, “You may see all that we have written you on several occasions concerning the publishing of information, or discussion of, asbestosis and the work which has been, and is being done, to eliminate or at least reduce it. Always you have requested that for certain obvious reasons we publish nothing, and naturally, your wishes have been respected ….”
In a letter from Johns-Manville Corporation to Mr. Simpson in 1941, Johns-Manville corporate officer Vandiver Brown further exemplified the cavalier attitude of the industry and lack of concern for its employees when he wrote, “I felt there was considerable likelihood that a number of subscribers would dislike an article on this subject in the trade magazine of the asbestos industry. I had in mind the ostrich-like attitude which has been evidenced from time-to-time by members of the industry.”
The conspiracy continued when the Saranac Laboratory tested the dust from the Owens-Illinois thermal insulation product known as Kaylo. In 1948, the lab reported to Owens-Illinois that Kaylo was capable of causing asbestos-related diseases and should be handled as a hazardous industrial dust. Owens-Illinois never issued any warning or literature about Kaylo’s health hazards.
These incidents and documents evidence the callous attitude of the asbestos industry toward asbestos hazards and show a conscious disregard for the safety of the American worker. This attitude is best shown by a September 12, 1966 document from E.A. Martin, director of Purchases for Bendix Corporation:
“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.”
The catastrophe of asbestos hazards was avoidable, had the asbestos industry acted to protect the American worker. Rather, the industry acted to protect profit and left a public health crisis in its wake––one that continues today.
Levin Simes is staffed with expert attorneys with decades of total experience litigating and trying mesothelioma cases. Our staff of lawyers, investigators, and legal assistants are here to assist you and your family with both the legal aspects of your diagnosis, and the personal and medical.
Our attorneys have recovered $500 million and counting for victims of dangerous products such as asbestos containing products, and our trial attorneys won the largest verdict for a single mesothelioma injury in California history. Contact an attorney at Levin Simes today, at 1-415-426-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.