Asbestos production peaked in the early 1970s.
Asbestos companies continued production, despite knowledge of the risks.
Cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses rose after the 1970s.
Asbestos victims took legal action against asbestos companies for wrongful exposure.
Asbestos companies thrived throughout the mid-1900s into the early 1970s as the mineral was used widely throughout over 3,000 different products. Asbestos manufacturers continued to benefit from the profits of asbestos products, despite knowing the risks of asbestos exposure, such as the development of serious illnesses like malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos cancer. Asbestos companies responsible for exposure have faced legal action throughout the past few decades as asbestos victims exercise their rights, taking action against wrongful exposure.
History of Asbestos Manufacturing
Asbestos is a natural mineral that has been around for thousands of years. However, the asbestos industry didn’t begin growing until the late 1800s at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Powered machinery and steam power became popular at this time, and asbestos was the seemingly perfect solution for temperature control. The material was able to withstand fire, heat and electrical damage, while also offering strength. As a result, asbestos was used frequently throughout steam pipes, turbines, ovens and other production components, especially those that faced high temperatures and friction.
The demand for asbestos continued to grow, as it was used to create many different asbestos products. When World War II began, the material took over the shipping industry, becoming a primary component in ship construction, while also becoming prevalent in the automobile and construction industries. Asbestos use continued to rise, reaching peak use in the early 1970s.
Common Asbestos Products During Peak Use
- Adhesives and tapes
- Asbestos insulation
- Brakes, brake pads and brake linings
- Ceiling tiles
- Clutches and clutch linings
- Commercial boilers
- Floor tiles
While asbestos was in part popular based on its heat-resistance, fireproofing and other qualities, it was also cheap and accessible. The mineral is found naturally around the world and can be mined. Asbestos mines were popular at this time, employing mostly men, but also affecting women and children. By the 1920s, an estimated 109,000 tons of asbestos were being mined each year. Asbestos mines not only affected those that were performing the labor, but also those that lived nearby as fibers were disturbed, polluting the air.
Asbestos Companies and Wrongful Exposure
Asbestos companies became very wealthy as demand increased. In January of 1906, Johns-Manville utilized a full-page advertisement in The Saturday Evening Post that stated how asbestos “serves more people in more ways than any institution of its kind in the world…And while the asbestos industry is comparatively undeveloped, it must be related as one of the great industries of the world.”
Asbestos use grew, asbestos manufacturers’ profits grew, and by the 1970s, more than 700,000 tons of asbestos were being consumed in the United States, annually.
However, as asbestos use increased, so did health problems related to the carcinogen, and evidence emerged that asbestos companies knew about the deadly nature of asbestos. Manufacturers like Johns-Manville were also found to have concealed the information to make sure workers and consumers were unaware of the hazards of occupational exposure. Companies wanted to continue to profit from mining, selling and manufacturing asbestos, so they covered up their knowledge of the risks.
Large Asbestos Corporations
- Armstrong World Industries
- Celotex Corporation
- Owens-Corning Corporation/Owens-Corning
- Fibreboard Corporation
- National Gypsum Corporation
- Raybestos-Manhattan Corporation
- W. R. Grace & Corporation
Asbestos Risks and Emerging Asbestos Litigation
Awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure started to emerge in the early 1900s. Asbestos miners and factory workers began reporting lung sickness and pulmonary issues as a result of working with the material. Although cases of pleural tumors were seen before 1900, mesothelioma was not recognized until around 1909 with a method of diagnosis emerging in 1931. Mesothelioma, asbestos, asbestos cancer, lung cancer and other asbestos illnesses all began to grow as a result of occupational exposure and of dealing with asbestos products.
As employees and consumers recognized that their health issues were linked to working with the carcinogen, the first asbestos claims began to emerge. In 1927, the first employee asbestos injury claim was made, and in 1929 the first lawsuit against an asbestos manufacturer was filed. However, asbestos manufacturing and use continued throughout the next few decades.
By 1935 asbestos was clearly connected to lung cancer diagnoses, and in 1955 researchers proved that those exposed to asbestos for longer durations were more likely to contract cancer. Lung cancer had many other known causes and risk factors, and mesothelioma was still very rare, so concerns about asbestos-related diseases still went largely overlooked.
However, by the 1970s, litigation was growing as more and more victims were taking action against employers and asbestos manufacturers, demanding compensation for the development of asbestos-related illnesses as a result of occupational exposure.
Lawsuits Against Asbestos Manufacturers
Around 950 asbestos cases were filed in federal courts during the 1970s with about twice as many cases being filed in state courts. Asbestosis, mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers can take years to develop after the time of exposure. For example, mesothelioma has a long latency period of 10 – 50 years, meaning victims may not see symptoms for decades after their interaction with asbestos. As a result, cases began to skyrocket as time went on. Between 1980 and 1984, 10,000 asbestos cases were filed in federal courts, causing many courts to admit that they were not able to handle them.
Within these lawsuits, victims began to sue asbestos manufacturers for exposing them to the carcinogen, which ultimately led to the diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease. Victims and loved ones sued to gain compensation for their pain and suffering, to help pay for medical bills and accommodate for loss of work.
Asbestos production began to slow down and many U.S. manufacturers went bankrupt as they paid out mesothelioma settlements or claims that went to court. Johns-Manville, for example, filed for bankruptcy in 1982 and in 1988 founded the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust. Many asbestos companies were required to set up asbestos trust funds to pay out current and future claims.
Laws and Regulations Affecting Asbestos Companies
Due to the growing number of asbestos cases hitting federal and state courts, laws and regulations began to be put into place in an attempt to lessen the risks and impact of asbestos exposure. Amendments, additions, changes and new regulations continue to emerge today as asbestos continues to be a problem and not completely banned within the United States.
Organizations and Agencies Regulating Asbestos
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Aims to reduce and handle environmental risks, protecting both the environment and the public.
- Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
- Asbestos Information Act
- Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA)
- Clean Air Act (CAA)
- Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA):
- Various company guidelines to protect workers, under authority from the Occupational Safety and Health Act
- Consumer Product Safety Commission: Oversees asbestos use in commercial products, instituting bans and recalls as necessary when products pose a risk to the public.
In addition to the policies and guidelines that organizations and agencies in the United States have put into place, the federal government has continued to pass amendments and additional legislative acts to help protect the public from the dangers of asbestos. Individual states also have their own asbestos laws in place.
Current Asbestos Use
Asbestos use fell after the 1970s, especially as companies went bankrupt, were bought out or were no longer able to manufacture their products because of new asbestos laws and regulations. Some companies ceased production altogether, while others were able to emerge from bankruptcy and switch their production focus to asbestos-free products.
Notable Bankrupt Asbestos Companies
- A.P. Green Industries
- Armstrong World Industries
- Babcock & Wilcox
- Bondex International
- Combustion Engineering
- Eagle-Picher Industries
- GAF Corporation
- Garlock Sealing Technologies
- Harbison Walker
- J.T. Thorpe
- Kaiser Aluminum
- Kaiser Gypsum Company, Inc.
- Kentile Floors, Inc.
- National Gypsum
- Owens Corning
- Owens Corning/Fireboard
- Pfizer/QuigleyPittsburgh Corning
- Plant Insulation
- T.H. Agriculture and Nutrition, LLC
- Thorpe Insulation Co.
- Turner & Newall
- United States Gypsum
- W.R. Grace
- Western MacArthur
The United States consumed 14,600 tons of asbestos by 2000, which is when most manufacturers stopped all production. However, the U.S. did not stop importing asbestos, which is still an issue today. Around 480 tons of asbestos are imported into the United States each year to supply 11 chloralkali plants. The mineral is coming mostly from Russian and Brazil, though Brazil will soon ban the export of the material, forcing U.S. companies to rely on Russia for the majority of asbestos imports.
The Need for an Asbestos Ban
Around 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States, each year, which doesn’t include diagnoses of asbestosis, asbestos cancer and other asbestos-related illnesses. The number of diagnoses and deaths from malignant mesothelioma continues to grow, but asbestos is still not fully banned.
The EPA recently instituted a rule that requires all asbestos products to be reviewed and approved before entering the United States. While advocates of such regulations feel that this helps minimize asbestos risks, others feel that it allows the asbestos industry to continue and that a complete ban is needed to offer the most protection.