From factory workers to construction contractors who came into contact with Gypsum products, thousands of people were vulnerable to asbestosis, pulmonary cancer, and mesothelioma. Anyone who tore down these boards during remodels was also at risk.
Harmful Products and Health Consequences
A memorandum from 1958 demonstrates that National Gypsum was aware of asbestosis risks by that year. “Perhaps the greatest hazard in your plant is with men handling asbestos,” the memo states. “Because just as certain as death and taxes is the fact that if you inhale asbestos dust, you get asbestosis.
This means adequate dust central systems properly maintained to assure concentration within your state maximum allowable limits.” 1 Despite knowing this information, Gypsum didn’t stop using asbestos-laden products until 1970.
While employers were aware of the hazards, employees were not informed. Current research shows that there isn’t a safe level of exposure. However, regulations prior to the 1970s allowed workplaces to utilize the carcinogenic material within what was then considered to be safe limits during that timeframe.
However, ventilation systems did not prevent diseases as many more people would go on to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and various kinds of cancer that can happen from any level of exposure. Often these diseases won’t be diagnosed for multiple decades.
Lawsuits and Bankruptcy
By the 1980s, Gypsum was facing suits from school districts who demanded to be compensated for removing Gypsum’s asbestos-laden products. Rather than focus on safety, Gypsum’s solution was to launch a public relations campaign to spin public perception and ward off other lawsuits. This strategy was not ultimately successful as the company later went bankrupt in 1990 over asbestos lawsuits.
National Gypsum Corporation Settlement Trust
National Gypsum emerged from bankruptcy with a trust established to pay off asbestosis claimants. Many of the victims had already died due to their ailments, and many more would become ill by the time those funds were exhausted. By the late 1990s, it was clear that the trust funds originally put aside would not ever be able to cover all future claims.
A new plan was established in 2002, creating the National Gypsum Corporation Settlement Trust to cover claims not excluded by limited liability laws.
Mesothelioma can take 20 to 40 years to develop. Because workers rarely had the knowledge that they were working around toxic materials, they often came home with their uniforms covered in these potentially fatal fibers and inadvertently exposed their relatives to secondhand exposure.
Wives and children frequently became ill and often sued for this reason. Due to Gypsum’s producing its variety of products over so many years, it is likely that many more people will become diagnosed with diseases such as mesothelioma and not even know the cause of exposure.