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EMF Studies

15 June 2016

Asbestos Industry Knew and Kept Secret for Decades That Their Product Was Deadly

"Honeywell is one of the biggest corporate backers of legislation, the so-called FACT Act, passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate that would delay and deny compensation to those who have been sickened from asbestos disease. Between 2010 and 2015, the company contributed nearly $250,000 to a small number of House Republicans who were instrumental in moving the bill through Congress."

Asbestos Industry Knew and Kept Secret for Decades That Their Product Was Deadly
by Alex Formuzis, Environmental Working Group, 8 June 2016

The asbestos industry was well aware that asbestos was deadly. Yet, the companies that mined asbestos and those that exposed workers, military personnel and consumers to it and their insurers kept what they knew secret for decades—endangering hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of whom perished as a result.

Even in recent years, decades after the dangers of asbestos became widely known, some companies continue trying to cover up—even destroy—evidence of their products’ devastation to workers, their families and many others who have been sickened and died from asbestos diseases.

Today, some of the most well-known companies in the country are lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would tip the scales of justice heavily in their favor when facing lawsuits from people who are sick and dying.

Modern knowledge of asbestos’ dangers is well over a century old. In 1900, a London doctor discovered asbestos fibers in the lungs of a textile factory worker who died at the age of 33 from severe pulmonary fibrosis, leading the physician to believe asbestos was the cause of death. By 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noticed a growing number of unusual deaths for those who worked with asbestos. By the early 1930s a name was given to the disease, asbestosis, for those who died after being exposed to asbestos on the job.

While banned in more than 50 other countries, asbestos remains legal and used in the U.S. and the diseases it causes kill up to 15,000 Americans each year.

Industry was Aware of the Asbestos Danger

In 1948, an internal memo from an insulation industry scientist warned that asbestos-based insulation caused asbestosis.

“I realize that our findings regarding Kaylo (brand of insulation) are less favorable than anticipated. However, since Kaylo is capable of producing asbestosis, it is better to discover it now in animals rather than later in industrial workers.”

– Dr. Arthur J. Vorwald, director, Trudeau Foundation, Nov. 16, 1948

Hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved and a national tragedy averted if the insulation industry responded appropriately to the science and removed asbestos from its products. It did not. Instead, it continued to manufacture one of the most widely used asbestos products without informing workers or the public.

A 1949 internal Exxon memo titled “Company Confidential” lists “Cancer of Lungs” as a disease likely caused by asbestos.

In 1958, an inter-office memo from the National Gypsum Co., which mined and used asbestos, stamped “Personal & Confidential” reads: “Just as certain as death and taxes … if you inhale asbestos dust you get asbestosis.” (M.C.M Pollard, National Gypsum Co. Sept. 22, 1958.)

Hiding the Danger from Workers and the Public

Despite a litany of corporate memos acknowledging the medical literature on the affects of asbestos, most companies profiting from its use continued to expose workers and the public to it for decades.

One of the most notorious industry memos, from 1966, shows just how callous executives were toward factory workers who were being exposed to asbestos.

The director of purchases for the Bendix Corporation (now Honeywell) wrote in a memo to an official with the Canadian Johns Manville Co.:

“My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it.”

– E.A. Martin, Bendix Corporation, Sept. 12, 1966

Today, Honeywell is one of the biggest corporate backers of legislation, the so-called FACT Act, passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate that would delay and deny compensation to those who have been sickened from asbestos disease. Between 2010 and 2015, the company contributed nearly $250,000 to a small number of House Republicans who were instrumental in moving the bill through Congress.

An Aug. 7, 1978 memo by an official at Babcock and Wilcox, a company that designs, engineers and manufactures boilers and other power generation equipment, acknowledged the company was aware it was violating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards set to limit worker exposure to asbestos fibers. The company decided to investigate the problem but not to warn workers who were being exposed. Instead, the company official wrote:

“The investigation is going to be handled as discreetly as possible. It is a concern of the meeting attendees that a labor violation such as a walkout or an OSHA citation would be forthcoming if the hourly labor force was aware of the apparent danger of asbestos exposure. … As the situation stands right now no one in the meeting wants the warning signs posted at this time.”

– T.L. Wharton, Babcock & Wilcox, Aug. 7, 1978

While the death toll from asbestos-triggered diseases continued to mount, the industry remained silent on what it knew to be the truth about the risk to workers. A 1971 memo from a Ford Motor Co. executive, unearthed by the Center for Public Integrity, argued that $1.25 per car was too much to spend on safer alternatives to asbestos brakes, concluding the “cost penalty” of switching to metal or carbon brakes “is severe.”

Another asbestos industry giant, Union Carbide, went on the offensive when OSHA issued its first asbestos regulations for worker safety in 1972. That same year, the company issued a memorandum to sales executives who might get angry calls from customers concerned about the new regulations.

“If the customer is persistent and threatens to eliminate asbestos—a certain amount of aggressiveness may be effective. Words and catch phrases such as “premature,” “irrational” or “avoiding the inevitable” will sometimes turn the table.

“The main objective is to keep the customer on the defensive, make him justify his position. … Change the mood before discussing anything pertinent about the new regulations. Alternating between an aggressive and submissive attitude is confusing and allows you to bide your time. … Don’t cover too much ground in one confrontation. Even rabies shots are spaced at moderate intervals.”

– B.L. Ingalis, Union Carbide June 22, 1972

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