The widespread use of asbestos by American industry has created one of the worst public health disasters in modern history. According to recent estimates, as many as ten thousand Americans die every year from asbestos disease. Worldwide, the total death toll from asbestos may be as high as 10 million.
Tragically, this epidemic of asbestos-related deaths was entirely preventable. Because asbestos was used in so many commercial products from insulation to brake linings to dry wall joint compound to hair dryers, most people assume that nobody knew about the hazards of asbestos until the OSHA regulations were first published in the early 1970s.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Dangers of Asbestos Known for Decades
The dangers of asbestos have been known for decades–from the 1920s and even before. The first reported death from asbestos exposure came as early as 1900, when Dr. Montague Murray reported that a 33 year old asbestos worker had died from inhaling asbestos fibers on the job.
By the 1920s, it was well-established that asbestos dust could cause a disabling and even fatal lung disease called asbestosis. By the 1940s, it was widely reported in the medical literature that asbestos dust was also a likely carcinogen, which was confirmed by an epidemiological study in 1955. By the early 1960s medical researchers around the world were reporting that asbestos caused the rare and fatal cancer known as mesothelioma.
Although it may seem shocking, the asbestos industry was well aware that asbestos could be deadly. Nevertheless, these companies continued to produce massive quantities of asbestos. Major American manufacturers such as Johns-Manville, Raybestos Manhattan, Westinghouse, General Motors, and General Electric knew as early as the 1930s and 1940s that asbestos dust was toxic and could cause fatal lung damage. By the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely known that asbestos was also a carcinogen.
Industry Took No Steps to Warn of Asbestos Dangers
However, these manufacturers did not take asbestos out of their products, and they did nothing to warn their workers and customers of the deadly properties of asbestos dust. Asbestos was simply too profitable. Instead, the industry chose to ignore the danger, or even took active steps to cover up the facts about asbestos. The following excerpt from a September, 1966 letter from the Director of Purchases at Bendix Corp. to Johns-Manville said it all:
My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it.
American manufacturers continued to produce asbestos products well into the 1970s and into the late 1980s. Even government regulation under OSHA was not enough to convince many corporations to stop using asbestos. In many cases, it required a major wave of product liability lawsuits by asbestos victims to finally convince American industry that the financial cost of asbestos was simply too great.
The discussion of the industry knowledge regarding the dangers of asbestos could fill a book. In fact, there are at least two books which extensively discuss this in great detail. See ASBESTOS: Medical and Legal Aspects by Barry I. Castleman and OUTRAGEOUS MISCONDUCT: The Asbestos Industry on Trial, by Paul Brodeur.