Industry Cover-Ups

The Asbestos Industry’s Role in Mesothelioma

When people start learning about asbestos-related diseases, they are generally shocked and outraged when they learn about the role that the asbestos industry played. One of the little known and shameful facts behind all of the deaths from mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other illnesses is that the asbestos companies knew that asbestos was lethal long before the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement in the 1970s. Many of them had commissioned their own study of the material after they had grown suspicious about the many sicknesses they saw in their own workers, but once their suspicions were confirmed, they elected to keep the information to themselves so that they could continue to make big profits through the use of the inexpensive materials. They took great pains to hide the information, making a pact among themselves to keep the secret from their employers and their customers. It is hard to imagine how many lives could have been saved had they come forward with what they knew and acted to protect the people who worked for them, as well as the ones who worked with their products.

A Dark History of Hiding Critical Information

Physicians began to suspect that there was a link between working with asbestos and a variety of lung diseases as long ago as the end of the 19th century. That was when asbestos companies were first notified of concerns about its apparent hazards, yet they chose not to respond to the news. By 1928 doctors had come up with a name for the condition that they were seeing most frequently in asbestos workers: asbestosis.  Once the condition had been recognized in this way, a group of asbestos company owners – both those that used asbestos on their job sites and those whose employees were working with materials or equipment that contained asbestos – began to discuss the issue, and whether or not they should take any action or report the apparent risks. After several meetings they agreed that they would do nothing to provide any kind of notice, and that furthermore they would not decrease their use of the product.  Some went so far as to modify documents that their insurance companies were providing regarding asbestos’ dangers, actively working to keep people from learning that their health and lives were in jeopardy.

Despite these efforts, in the 1930s employees started to take note of the link between their illnesses and their exposure to asbestos, and some started filing lawsuits seeking compensation for asbestosis damages. Rather than addressing the issue, these companies chose to settle these claims in secret, insisting on secrecy and that all future rights to file more claims be waived.  Other employees began demanding health screening, and though the asbestos companies often agreed to these medical tests they also altered many of the results, or kept them from their workers. Physicians, however, were also taking note of the rise in lung diseases, including mesothelioma and lung cancer, and began to conduct studies into the effects of asbestos exposure. By 1943 a physician named Dr. LeRoy Gardner submitted the results of a six-year study he had conducted at the Saranac Laboratory in New York to the Johns-Manville Corporation. His research had revealed asbestos to be a carcinogen. Rather than responding with a plan to stop using the mineral, Johns-Manville followed in the steps of other companies that had hidden the dangers of asbestos, asking Dr. Gardner to keep his information secret from both employees and the public. The company then went on to collaborate with others in the asbestos industry to create false documents pointing to asbestos’ safety.

The End of the Asbestos Conspiracy

By the 1960s, the American Medical Association was endorsing studies that linked asbestos to a number of illnesses, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Despite this, the asbestos companies continued to attempt to subvert the information being made public. They reacted to the news of medical reports by aggressively contradicting them, promoting the use of the material and disputing the medical community’s evidence by manufacturing their own. As a result of their conspiratorial actions to subvert the truth it took another ten years before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) took action to protect workers, regulating the use of the product through an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that protected against exposure to asbestos dust.  That measure was quickly made permanent, and information about how dangerous asbestos is became widespread.

These developments occurred roughly forty years after the asbestos industry began settling asbestosis lawsuits, and it is tragic to think how many lives could have been saved had the companies acted at that time to discontinue asbestos use or provide protections and warnings to workers exposed to the toxic mineral. By 1979 the Environmental Protection Agency began to take action against the use of and exposure to asbestos, but the industry continued to push back and their campaign to include it in the Toxic Substances Control Act went down to defeat. This pattern of obstruction on the part of the asbestos industry continued for decades and goes on today as powerful lobbyists continue to work against this dangerous material being banned from use in the United States.

Why Did the Asbestos Industry Engage in this Cover-up?

Victims of asbestos exposure are often dismayed and perplexed when they learn of how the asbestos industry collaborated to keep scientific and medical information about asbestos from the public, but the reason is easy to understand: they were driven by greed. Asbestos was a highly useful material that was inexpensive, and that allowed the companies to make greater profits then they could have had they been forced to find another material to replace it.  There is an extensive record of testimony that has been recorded in mesothelioma and asbestos lawsuits that prove this: one executive of an asbestos company was questioned in court about whether they would choose to continue using the carcinogen and allow employees to die.  He answered simply, “Yes. We save a lot of money that way.” The story of the hundreds of thousands of workers who were sickened and died of asbestosis, COPD, asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma comes down to the fact that the asbestos companies chose to put their interest in continuing to make a profit over their concerns for the people who worked for them and used their products.