Asbestos known to be toxic by 1920
Since the 1920's, senior management in companies that mined and processed asbestos, and those that manufactured industrial products containing asbestos knew that exposure to asbestos fibers presented major health hazards for their workers. These companies did not tell their workers about the health risks, nor did they provide adequate ventilation, masks, or other safety equipment that could have reduced their exposure.
When medical researchers and lawyers for workers who developed asbestosis and mesothelioma began to ask hard questions, these corporate officers lied, stonewalled, and did their utmost to prevent the facts from coming to light. From the 1940's through court cases in the late 80's, their assertion that they knew nothing about asbestos exposure as a cause of fatal disease cost the lives of thousands of men and women who worked in their factories and shipyards. The asbestos industry's cover-up, and their refusal to offer compensation to workers dying of asbestos-related disease is one of the great industrial crimes of the 20th century.
History of asbestos use in American industry
The problems started during the last decades of the 19th century, as manufacturers began to use asbestos for a variety of industrial products, such as insulation for pipes and boilers, and as a heat-resistant material in brakes and clutches. Through the early 20th century uses for asbestos products expanded to hundreds of products and applications, including cement building materials, reinforcement in asbestos-cement products, water and sewage pipes, fire resistant insulation boards, floor tiles and coverings, wallboard, ceiling tiles, and in gas masks, lifts and machinery.
Because asbestos-related disease develops slowly and often presents no symptoms for years after the exposure, the 20th century was well into its second decade before large numbers of workers developed the diseases we now recognize as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Nonetheless, manufacturers and medical observers had begun to suspect the toxicity of asbestos. The Prudential Insurance Company recognized the risk in 1918, when it ceased to sell life insurance coverage to asbestos workers because of the "health-injurious conditions of the industry."
By the 1930’s the federal government had taken notice of the problem. In Outrageous Misconduct, his groundbreaking expose of the asbestos industry coverup, Paul Brodeur cited a letter from a U.S. Bureau of Mines official in1933 to Eagle-Picher, an asbestos manufacturer, that stated "it is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed."
More than a million workers exposed to asbestos in shipyards
During World War II, naval shipyards ramped up production, employing many thousands of workers in the construction and repair of ships. In 1943, the peak year for shipbuilding employment in the US, 1,337,000 workers in skilled trades, engineering, clerical, and management jobs worked building and repairing the country's military and commercial fleets. Asbestos products were used extensively in these enterprises, Shipyard workers often worked in enclosed, unventilated spaces where the concentration of airborne particles was so high that the air was cloudy with them. Suppliers of asbestos products and shipyard owners made no disclosure to this patriotic workforce of the lethal risks they faced working around asbestos.
Metropolitan Life continued to study worker health in asbestos industries. A company report written in 1944 described a workforce of 195 miners at one mine, among whom doctors diagnosed 42 cases of asbestosis, an incidence rate of more than 20 per cent.
Physicians on the Johns-Manville payroll began to voice their concern. In 1952, Dr Kenneth Smith, the company’s medical director urged managers to place warning labels explaining the potential health hazards of asbestos on the company’s products. He was overruled. Barry Castleman quotes Dr Smith in Asbestos, Medical and Legal Aspects when Smith later gave a deposition for a lawsuit against Johns-Manville: "It was a business decision as far as I could understand . . . the corporation is in business to provide jobs for people and make money for stockholders and they had to take into consideration the effects of everything they did and if the application of a caution label identifying a product as hazardous would cut into sales, there would be serious financial implications."
In 1953 the director of safety for National Gypsum, a major manufacturer of asbestos products, wrote to the Indiana Division of Industrial Hygiene, recommending that workers mixing acoustic plaster wear respirators "because of the asbestos used in the product". Another National Gypsum executive reviewed the letter, called it was "full of dynamite," and arranged to have it intercepted before it reached its destination.