Cover-Ups in the Asbestos Industry
With a product as lucrative as asbestos, there was a lot for the industry to lose if the extensive dangers of the hazardous materials were made known to the general public. Accusations and connections between asbestos exposure and lung diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma were threatening the very productive industry.
In the late 1800s, scientists were linking health conditions to asbestos exposure and by the early 20th century, asbestosis was discovered. Asbestosis is a serious lung condition caused by the inhalation of asbestos dust and fibers which settle, scarring the lungs, and making it difficult to breathe.
This disease, as well as others, were becoming very concerning for workers in the industry.
Major Profits of Asbestos
Asbestos has incredible fire-resistant and insulating properties that make the mineral highly sought after for numerous products. With no short supply of the mineral, it was also highly cost-effective to mine and manufacture, increasing its value to companies even more.
Companies discovered that the product was so versatile it could be incorporated with almost all construction materials, making them stronger, more insulated, and flame retardant.
These discoveries were made right about the time that reports of asbestos-caused diseases were surfacing, but that did not stop the manufacturing of products that contained the dangerous material. Asbestos was a multibillion-dollar operation, employing hundreds of thousands of people and raking in profits at an astounding rate.
In order to continue making products with asbestos, and in turn, keeping the cash flow coming in, the dangers of asbestos need to be kept under wraps. While these huge companies were making tons of money, it was at the cost of the health of the workers directly exposed to asbestos.
Covering Up Hazards of Asbestos
Many companies were involved in massive cover-ups, including burying and discrediting research that would have caused the companies to implement strict inspection regulations and safer workplace operations and practices. Some other employers refused to release x-ray scans to their employees if they showed evidence of lung disease.
In 1929, Dr. Anthony Lanza was asked to look into lung diseases of workers in the asbestos industry. When high rates of illness were found to be connected to working in close proximity to asbestos, his findings were concealed from the public.
In 1932, Raybestos-Manhattan and Johns Manville downplayed the serious nature of asbestos exposure by discrediting a study on asbestos textile workers who were weaving asbestos fibers into cloth.
Also in 1932, British government officials were intimidated into limiting asbestos regulations and inspections by the company Turner and Newall.
In 1935, the president of another company stated in a letter that “the less said about asbestos, the better off we are.”
In 1949, Dr. Kenneth Smith advised an asbestos producing company to not tell their workers when it was found they have asbestosis.
In 1964, leaders in the asbestos industry reported that they had no knowledge of any health risks before that year, though numerous incidents can be used as evidence that was not the case.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
This insurance company insured many of the asbestos industry giants including Johns Manville, Raybestos-Manhattan, National Gypsum, Flintkote, and Fibreboard.
Dr. Lanza conducted studies that revealed the frightening reality of prolonged exposure to asbestos. Of the workers who spent 15 years or more working with asbestos, 87% of them showed signs of lung disease. The industry interrupted the publication of the research findings for years and even altered some of the statistics to be less prolific.
In a series of documents called the Sumner Simpson Papers, there is extensive evidence that proof of asbestos hazards were hidden from the general public by the president of Raybestos-Manhattan. It was in one of these letters that the president stated that the less said about asbestos, the better.
Bendix Corporation held a report that stated that government regulations of asbestos production would likely be the result of reported health risks of exposure. They continued to manufacture products for the automobile industry that contained asbestos until 1997. The company is now known as Honeywell.
There is also a notable scandal with Dr. J.C. Wagner, who was the first doctor (pathologist) to publish research on the connection between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. He later doubled back on his claims, stating that there was no connection.
It was found that he was being paid to lie in court by numerous asbestos companies who were fighting lawsuits against people who had developed mesothelioma. When he discredited his own research, he created doubt worldwide about the hazards of increased exposure to asbestos.
The New Attempts to Cover Up Asbestos
There is now a mandate that companies producing talcum powder products must use asbestos-free talc, and these companies make wide claims of the safety of their products.
One major corporation, Johnson & Johnson, recently came under fire when Reuters published a report that revealed a cover-up within the company of asbestos contamination in this talcum powder that has been going on since the 1970s.
Internal documents from the company showed evidence that they covered up results from asbestos tests for at least 30 years, and never reported the results or even the tests to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).
The Future of Exposure
As workers from the 1970s and 1980s grow older, it is expected that more lung disease connected to asbestos exposure will surface, strengthening the argument that more strict workplace regulations need to be put in place to protect workers from these serious health risks.