The asbestos cover-up: a brief history (Part I)

Most people in North Carolina are aware of the health hazard posed by airborne asbestos fibers. Some know that inhalation of asbestos fibers causes asbestosis and that asbestos is the only known cause of a lethal form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. At the same time, these people are unaware of the long battle waged by manufacturers of asbestos and asbestos-containing products to prevent information about this hazard from being widely disseminated or used in court cases involving claims for damages due to asbestos product exposure. In this two-part post, we will provide a brief history of the war between the asbestos industry and the advocates who have urged a complete ban on the use of this fluffy mineral.

The earliest knowledge of the hazards of asbestos emerged around 1900, when a London doctor found asbestos fibers in the lungs of a textile worker who died at age 33 from severe pulmonary fibrosis. Statistical evidence gathered between the World Wars also pointed to asbestos as the cause of an unusual number of deaths for those who worked with the mineral. In the 1930s, “asbestosis” was identified as a disease that killed many workers who had been exposed to the fibers on the job.

After WWII, asbestos industry executives began to acknowledge the potential health hazards of asbestos exposure. However, instead of calling public attention to these hazards, asbestos companies chose to hide these hazards from the public. Some internal memoranda display an especially callous attitude about the risks. An executive with a company that is now a subsidiary of Honeywell, Inc. wrote that his answer to the asbestos problem was “if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it.”

As the risks from asbestos became well-known in the 1960s, the industry began to increase its efforts to hide or obscure the hazard. These efforts continue today, and they will be the subject of the next installment of this blog.

Source: Huffington Post, “Asbestos Industry Covered Up Danger for Decades, and Evades Responsibility Today,” Alex Formuzis, June 6, 2016