What is Asbestos?
Asbestos, meaning inextinguishable, was named by the Ancient Greeks who recognized the fireproof qualities of asbestos as well as the harmful effects on the asbestos workers. Mesothelioma is caused by inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers.
Composed of silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, and several different metals, asbestos is the generic name for six naturally occurring minerals. These asbestos minerals can be divided into two basic groups, amphibole and serpentine, based on their physical characteristics. Amphibole asbestos has a chain-like structure and serpentine asbestos develops in a layered form. The three most common types of fibers are amosite (brown or gray asbestos), chrysotile (white asbestos), and crocidolite (Riebeckite).
Amosite asbestos, a member of the amphibole asbestos family, is made up of straight fibers containing iron and magnesium. Chrysotile asbestos, a member of the serpentine group, is a white curly fiber and a magnesium silicate. Chrysotile asbestos accounts for 90% of the asbestos used in products. Crocidolite asbestos, a member of the amphibole group, takes the form of straight, blue fibers and is made up of sodium iron magnesium silicate. The other asbestos types are anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite and are all part of the amphibole group. Anthophyllite can range in color from brown to gray to white. It is a magnesium iron silicate hydroxide and is often associated with talc and other minerals. Tremolite is white to grayish green and is a calcium, magnesium, iron silicate. Tremolite can be found in various types of schists. A schist is a metamorphic rock usually named for the mineral from which they are formed. Hornblende schist, garnet mica schist, bitotite mica schist, and talc schist are a few examples. Actinolite presents as dark green crystals or fibrous aggregates. Actinolite has a chemical formula similar to tremolite but contains more iron in relation to magnesium that tremolite does.
Fiber bundles which easily separate into long, thick fibers are the most commonly recognized type of asbestos. In ancient times, this property was first recognized and used for everlasting lamp wicks. Pliny the Elder published the first encyclopedia, Natural History, in A.D. 77 where he wrote, "Asbestos looks like alum and is completely fire-proof; it also resists all magic potions, especially those concocted by the Magi." Both Pliny and the ancient Greek geographer Strabos observed "sickness of the lungs" in the slaves who wove asbestos into cloth.
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Throughout history asbestos references were made in texts from many different cultures. Asbestos was used in limited ways for hundreds of years before gaining popularity during the Industrial Revolution beginning in the late-1800's. Asbestos was then used as insulation for ovens, boilers, kilns, steam pipes, turbines and other high-temperature products.
In the early 1900's knowledge of the dangerous propensities of asbestos began to resurface. Asbestos fibers were found in the lungs of a man who had worked with asbestos by an English physician performing a post-mortem. Over the next two decades physicians noted uncommonly high levels of illness and disease in asbestos workers. An English doctor in the mid-1920's made what many believe was the first diagnosis of asbestosis. An English study showed that 25% of asbestos workers had signs of lung disease shortly thereafter. England then began passing laws designed to protect English workers.
Sadly the use of asbestos increased dramatically in the United States as other properties of asbestos were recognized. For example, asbestos was used in paper production in order to obtain a higher grade of paper with a lower grade of pulp. It was used as a filler in many adhesives (glues) and plastics. Immediately before and after World War II, brakes, clutches, building plasters, cements, shingles, insulation, drywall joint compounds and textured paints commonly contained asbestos. Almost any building material over 30 years of age may contain or be attached to some type of asbestos containing product.
Because of the volume of products that have contained, or still contain, asbestos along with the increasing human life span and advances in medical diagnostics, asbestos disease diagnoses are expected to increase for decades to come.
Various sources of information including the books Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial, written by Paul Brodeur, Pantheon Books, New York, New York, 1985, and Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects, 4th Edition, written by Barry I. Castleman, Aspen Law and Business, Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1996 document that asbestos companies had extensive knowledge of the serious health issues that the use of asbestos in their products and by their employees would cause for individuals in the future. Below is a small sample timeline of events that occurred providing companies with knowledge that asbestos was dangerous:
- 1918: Frederick Hoffman, a medical statistician for the Prudential Life Insurance Company, reported in a United States Department of Labor Bulletin that American life insurance companies generally deny coverage to asbestos workers because of the "assumed health-injurious conditions of the industry."
- 1922: Louis Dublin, a statistician for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, writes that asbestos workers are at risk of injury to the lungs.
- 1930: One major asbestos company, Johns-Manville, produces a report, for internal company use only, detailing the fatalities and medical injuries of asbestos workers.
- 1932: A letter from the United States Bureau of Mines to asbestos manufacturer Eagle-Picher states, "It is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed."
- 1933: Metropolitan Life Insurance Company doctors find that 29% of the workers at one Johns-Manville plant are suffering from asbestosis. Johns-Manville settles lawsuits by 11 employees on the condition that the lawyer for the employees agrees that he will not bring any new actions against Johns-Manville.
- 1934: Officials at Johns-Manville and Raybestos Manhattan, rewrite an article about the diseases of asbestos workers written by a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company doctor to minimize the danger of asbestos dust.
- 1935: Johns-Manville and Raybestos Manhattan instruct the editor of Asbestos Magazine to publish nothing about asbestosis.
- 1936: A group of asbestos companies agree to sponsor research on the health effects of asbestos dust but require that the companies have complete control over the disclosure of the results.
- 1937: Roy Bonsib, Chief Safety Inspector for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, documents illnesses such as asbestosis and analyzes the dust-creating potential of installing and removing asbestos insulation.
- 1937-38: The Industrial Hygiene Digest at the Industrial Hygiene Foundation includes 2 articles about industrial types of cancer by workers working with asbestos.
- 1942: An Owens Corning corporate memorandum refers to "medical literature on asbestosis . . . [and] scores of publications in which the lung and skin hazards of asbestos are discussed."
- 1942-43: The president of Johns-Manville says that the managers of another company were "a bunch of fools for notifying employees who had asbestosis." When one of the people in attendance ask, "Do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they drop dead?" According to deposition testimony, the response was, "Yes. We save a lot of money that way."
- 1944: Metropolitan Life Insurance Company finds 42 cases of asbestosis among 195 asbestos miners.
- 1944: The Journal of the Medical Association reports that asbestos is one of the "agents known or suspected to cause occupational cancer."
- 1948: The American Petroleum Institute Medical Advisory Committee, whose members include oil giants, received a summary of a paper in which the chief pathologist for E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Co. suggested that the industry "aim at the complete elimination of the exposure" to asbestos.
- 1951: Asbestos companies remove all references to cancer before allowing publication of research they sponsor concerning exposure to asbestos.
- 1953: National Gypsums safety director wrote to the Indiana Division of Industrial Hygiene, recommending that acoustic plaster mixers wear respirators "because of the asbestos used on the product." Another company official notes that the letter was "full of dynamite," and urges that the letter be retrieved before reaching its destination. A memo from those files notes that the company "succeeded in stopping" the letter which "will be modified."
- 1964: Dr. Irving Selikoff publishes a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, proving that people who work with asbestos containing materials have an abnormal incidence of asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
- 1989 and 1991: In 1989, the United States Environmental Protection Agency bans asbestos and most of its uses, but, in 1991, asbestos companies win a federal lawsuit which overturns the EPAs asbestos ban.
- 1999: The Florida Supreme Court rules that Owens Corning willfully withheld information about the dangers of working with the company's asbestos products. The Florida Supreme Court describes it as a "blatant disregard for human safety involving large numbers of people put at life-threatening risks.
As stated, the above actions by these companies are just a small sample of the many actions by companies using asbestos which did so in disregard of the safety of their employees and other innocent victims. Companies, who so frivolously ignored the health of the public and their own employees, are the targets of our litigation.