Unfortunately for American workers, the asbestos industry was very successful in concealing knowledge of the dangers of asbestos throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s.
However, the scientific evidence continued to mount. By the early 1970s, the public awareness of the hazards of asbestos was beginning to grow. Rather than looking for ways to take asbestos out of their products, the asbestos industry launched one last all-out public relations campaign.
Industry Acted “To Protect the Interests of Asbestos Manufacturers”
In response to the growing information that asbestos was toxic and carcinogenic, in late 1970 a number of U.S. and Canadian manufacturers formed the Asbestos Information Association of North America (AIA/NA) “to assume whatever activities and responsibilities it deems necessary to protect the interests of the asbestos manufacturing industry in the United States, vis-à-vis asbestos health.”
On June 7, 1973, the AIA/NA held a meeting to discuss the new government asbestos regulations and the hundreds of medical articles being published each year on asbestosis and mesothelioma. Matthew Swetonic, the Executive Secretary of the Asbestos Information Association, presented a speech and handout entitled, “Why Asbestos?”
Asbestos Industry Please to Report “That very few people were paying attention…”
After detailing all the “bad news” about asbestos, the Industry was pleased to report the “good news” that “very few people were paying attention”. Mr. Swetonic explained:
“First, there is no doubt that the inhalation of substantial amounts of asbestos can lead to increased rates of various types of lung disease, including two forms of cancer. These are facts which cannot be denied, even if they do not apply in all circumstances and under all conditions. The medical literature is full of solid evidence linking asbestos to disease. In my office, I have on file more than 2,000 medical papers dealing with the health risks of asbestos and hundreds more are published each year.“
Swetonic went on to explain that:
“Even more important, according to an analysis by the Association of more than a dozen mortality studies, including those of Dr. Selikoff, our prediction is that approximately 25,000 past and present employees in the asbestos industry have died or will eventually die of asbestos-related disease.”
However, having established that asbestos would be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, Mr. Swetonic did not urge members of the asbestos industry to stop using asbestos, or even to warn the public of the hazards.
The AIA/NA showed no interest in trying to prevent further deaths. On the contrary, the asbestos industry was only interested in making sure that the public would continue buying asbestos products, regardless of the danger.
Thus, Mr. Swetonic proudly reported that:
“And now having heard the bad side of the public relations problem, it’s time for some good news.
And the good news is that despite all the negative articles on asbestos health that have appeared in the press over the past half-dozen years, very few people have been paying attention…“
“In February , the Association undertook a personal interview research survey of the American public to determine its attitude toward asbestos and its awareness of the health issue…More than 2,000 demographically selected Americans were interviewed.
The results show that only 22 per cent of the American public are aware of the health hazards of asbestos, and that 80 per cent of these consider it a hazard only to those who are occupationally exposed. A mere three per cent of those interviewed stated that they considered asbestos a health hazard to the general public…
These results should be reassuring to those industry customers who fear that the general public will stop buying their products because they contain asbestos.”
This speech candidly lays out the callous philosophy of the asbestos industry.
These companies had no doubt that asbestos was a carcinogen and a major health hazard. However, rather than looking for a safer alternative, these manufacturers were determined to exploit public ignorance about the true hazards of asbestos and went right on selling their toxic product as long as it was profitable.
Thousands of Americans continue to die of asbestos-related diseases every year as a result.