The asbestos epidemic is considered by many to be one of the worst environmental tragedies of the past century—and one that still haunts thousands of people diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. But what elevates this calamity from tragic to shocking is how easily it could have been avoided, and how countless thousands of lives could have been spared, had the asbestos industry acted responsibly with the knowledge they had early-on about the hazards of asbestos. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the dangers of asbestos were known as far back as the 19th century, companies that made, sold and used asbestos-containing products not only ignored the evidence but actively concealed it from the public for decades.
Early knowledge of the risk
The risk of asbestos exposure was reported as far back as the late 19th century, when a doctor from Vienna wrote about pervasive lung disease among asbestos textile workers and their family members. Less than a decade later, a British physician found asbestos fibers in the lung tissue of a young asbestos textile worker who had died of pulmonary fibrosis. In 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an unusually high death rate among asbestos workers, and a medical statistician with a major insurance company reported that asbestos workers were typically denied life insurance coverage because of the assumed risks of lung injury.
By the 1920s, asbestos-related scarring of the lungs was given a name: asbestosis. Several articles about asbestosis were published in the British Medical Journal in 1924. In 1930, two scientists published a historic report finding an increased risk of disease among asbestos workers as a class. This scientific study, authored by Drs. Meriwether and Lewis, announced an alarming statistic: 80% of asbestos workers employed in the industry for 20 years or more developed asbestosis.
By the 1930s, reports about asbestosis in the medical and scientific literature were pervasive. But the fact that asbestos exposure posed a serious health hazard, while widely available to the asbestos industry, was not shared with workers. In fact, the manufacture and use of asbestos-containing products increased through the coming decades, in spite of the breadth of scientific information widely available to industry.
The cancer connection
Scientists also began to establish the link between asbestos and cancer in the 1930s, and several medical journal articles on the subject were published during this decade. In 1938, a team of German doctors determined that lung cancer was an occupational disease of asbestos workers. In 1955, a major study demonstrated that asbestos increased the risk of lung cancer ten-fold. The link between asbestos and malignant mesothelioma was reported as early as 1960.
The dangers of asbestos finally started gaining more attention by the press and policy makers in 1964, after Dr. Irving Selikoff presented his landmark study about rates of mesothelioma among asbestos insulation workers. Eventually, in 1972, the newly-formed Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) began to crack down on asbestos exposure in the workplace. But by the time information about asbestos’ health hazards started reaching the people affected the most—the exposed workers—several hundred articles had already been published about the dangerous fiber. Unfortunately, by that time decades of workers had been unwittingly exposed.
With all of the information about the dangers of asbestos available in the scientific literature, why did the asbestos companies not take action to protect workers? Unfortunately, the industry valued profits more than the lives and health of the very people who used their products day in and day out.
Indeed, the scientific and medical communities were not alone in studying the hazards of asbestos in the first half of the 20th century—major asbestos companies also commissioned their own studies. However, when these studies confirmed the dangers of asbestos exposure, the companies did not warn the public or scale back production. They did the opposite—they concealed this vital information, which was hidden for decades until their web of deception was finally exposed.
In 1930, asbestos company Johns-Manville produced an internal report documenting fatalities and illnesses among asbestos workers. Two years later, the United States Bureau of Mines wrote to asbestos manufacturer Eagle-Picher, “It is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed.” In 1933, a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company doctor found that 29% of workers at one Johns-Manville plant suffered from asbestosis.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, several asbestos companies, including Johns-Manville and Raybestos-Manhattan, funded research conducted by the Saranac Laboratory in New York about the health risks of asbestos exposure. Much to the companies’ dismay, the Saranac studies demonstrated a link between asbestos and cancer. But in a meeting among the heads of the companies funding the studies, it was agreed that the Saranac findings would not be published without the group’s consent, and that any published studies would not contain such “objectionable” material as “any relation between asbestos and cancer.” Indeed, the group’s final agreement was to delete any reference to a relationship between cancer and asbestos from the Saranac reports. Furthermore, officials with Johns-Manville and Raybestos-Manhattan instructed the publisher of Asbestos Magazine not to publish a word about the known hazards of asbestos, and the publisher complied.
A long and sordid list of documents that have since come to light—many as a result of asbestos lawsuits—demonstrate not only the asbestos industry’s knowledge of the hazards of asbestos, but also their executives’ successful efforts to hide the hazards from the public as well as their sheer disregard for human life. For example, in the early 1940s, the president of Johns-Manville called the managers of another company “a bunch of fools for notifying employees who had asbestosis.” When asked by another corporation’s representative, “Do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they drop dead?” he responded, “Yes. We save a lot of money that way.” And in 1966, an executive with Bendix Corporation wrote, “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.”
Asbestos was far too profitable for these companies to alert the public to the known dangers. As a result, the dangers were hidden from the public eye for decades, and countless millions of Americans were dangerously exposed to asbestos as a result.