Asbestos: A Brief History of America’s Deadly Addiction

Many Americans like to believe that their government does everything it can to protect its citizens from deadly things.

Every year,America spends a fortune fighting terrorists, repairing rusty bridges, arresting drug dealers, putting out forest fires, and helping victims of natural disasters.

Yet, amazingly, the U.S. government has failed to outlaw an incredibly deadly substance that is everywhere in our country, killing people wherever it is found.

This mass-killer is asbestos.

How and Why Asbestos Is a Mass-Murderer

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring fibrous mineral. For centuries, asbestos has been valued for its strength and ability to resist heat and flame. The once-dubbed “miracle mineral” was widely used in America during the 20th century in construction and other industries, including insulation, electrical, and automotive.

Although asbestos looks harmless in its raw state, any level of exposure to the mineral is extremely hazardous.

Over the past 100 years, medical evidence has proven again and again that asbestos causes many deadly diseases in humans. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund, up to 15,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Today, asbestos is banned in 55 countries worldwide, including almost all of the developed Western nations.

So, why is the import and use of this deadly carcinogenic material still legal in America? Why is the U.S. government sitting back and allowing American citizens to be killed by asbestos without taking action?

A Brief History of a Deadly Industry

The asbestos industry has its roots in the early 19th century, when mines for the deadly substance sprang up in Africa, Russia, and Canada. These first commercial mines shipped their product to the U.K. and the U.S., where the raw asbestos underwent fabrication.

By the 20th Century, the extraction, fabrication, and use of asbestos was in full swing. The material was utilized in a wide variety of industries, including the textile, steel, and automotive industries.

Asbestos use increased in America in the 1930s, when the U.S. began expanding its naval fleet in response to military expansionism by Germany and Japan. Navy ships built during this time were heavily insulated with asbestos as a measure to prevent fires. The U.S. used an estimated 1 billion pounds of asbestos per year during WWII.

In the 30 years following WWII – a time period known as “The Golden Age of Capital” – the American asbestos industry expanded further until it peaked. Since then, use of the toxic substance has decreased as a result of stiffer regulations.

Despite being banned briefly in 1989, though, the import and use of asbestos is today still legal in America, a fact that should shock and horrify all Americans.

As Knowledge Grows, Nothing Is Done

Knowledge surrounding the dangers of asbestos grew in relation to the industry itself. Since at least 1900, when a London doctor attributed the death by pulmonary fibrosis of an asbestos textile factory worker to the man’s occupation, the deadly consequences of working with asbestos have been documented and known about by the companies dealing with asbestos.

During the 1920s, researchers in Britain examined the horrific effects of asbestos exposure on a larger scale. Of the hundreds of textile workers examined, a quarter were found to have pulmonary fibrosis, a condition Dr. W.E. Cooke dubbed asbestosis.

By the 1930s, awareness had grown so extensively that Aetna, an American insurance company, devoted a full chapter to asbestos in its Attorney’s Textbook of Medicine. Asbestosis was described as "incurable and usually result[ing] in total permanent disability followed by death."

A study published by the South African scientist J.C. Wagner in 1960 illustrated the connection between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, a rare disease that little was known about at the time.

Wagner’s groundbreaking study was pivotal in changing global attitudes towards asbestos. His startling findings sparked decades of research into the deadly effects of asbestos by environmental agencies in the U.K. and the U.S.

However, despite the thousands of studies that emerged proving asbestos kills, the American asbestos industry survives today.

Bosses Get Paid, Workers Get Laid to Rest

Just as asbestos miraculously resists heat and flame, the American asbestos industry has miraculously resisted regulation.

One of the ways it has done so is through the concealment of damning scientific information and what Stanford University Sociology Professor Robert Procter described as “the social construction of ignorance” surrounding asbestos.

Ample evidence has been unearthed showing that asbestos-using manufacturers and their insurers were, for decades, well-aware of the deadly hazards of working with asbestos but worked to conceal this information, both from the general public and from their workers.

A memo from the medical director at Johns-Manville (a corporation that, for years, produced asbestos-containing insulation and roofing materials) to corporate executives stated:

"The fibrosis of this disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But, as long as the man is not disabled it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and the company can benefit by his many years of experience.”

The asbestos industry has worked hard to conceal information and create confusion surrounding the extent to which asbestos threatens workers and society. Thanks to massive corporate budgets and resources, these efforts have had partial success and have impeded the fight to completely ban asbestos.

So Close, but So Far Away

Despite efforts by the asbestos industry, partial regulation of the use of asbestos was implemented in the U.S. during the 70s and 80s.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 classified asbestos as an air pollutant. This law gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the ability to regulate the use and disposal of asbestos.

In 1989, the EPA helped pass a monumental asbestos regulatory bill known as the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPR). This bill was the accumulation of millions of dollars and a decade of scientific research, as well as 100,000 pages of administrative record, and was designed as the initiation of a total ban on asbestos.

The massive corporations who profited from asbestos, of course, weren’t very happy about this law.

Using the argument that excessive regulation of the asbestos industry would cause an economic downturn, asbestos product manufacturers and their lobbyists fought the ABPR. A lawsuit was filed. The 1991 landmark suit, titled Corrosion Proof Fittings v. Environmental Protection Agency, resulted with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturning the ban on asbestos.

In the egregious ruling, the court stated that the EPA had failed to demonstrate that asbestos was more harmful than its alternative materials.

Besides only 7 asbestos-containing products being banned, it was back to business as usual for the asbestos product manufacturers, their workers, and the American public, who were once again at risk (without knowing it) of being exposed to asbestos.

The Fight Continues

In 2007, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) sponsored the Ban Asbestos in America Act. The bill died in Congress, due in part to the sinister influence of the asbestos industry.

In addition to employing an army of lobbyists to promote the interests of big asbestos, asbestos industry giants literally pay off members of Congress (in the form of campaign donations) to ensure that anti-asbestos bills are voted down and anti-litigation bills (like the outrageous Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act) are passed.

Unfortunately, the asbestos industry puts profit over the lives of American citizens. It is unbelievable and despicable that U.S. politicians are so greedy that they also value money more than the well-being of the American people they signed up to represent and protect.

Until asbestos is banned completely and permanently, it cannot be said that the U.S. government values the lives of citizens more than the interests of corporations.

Asbestos was completely banned by a national government for the first time by Iceland in 1983. Since then, 54 countries have followed Iceland’s lead. America is one of the very few Western, industrialized nations where the use of asbestos is not banned.

The legality of asbestos has endured over the decades thanks to tremendous efforts by the asbestos industry. Under pressure and payment from the industry giants, the U.S. government has consistently acted to protect the interests of huge corporations that profit from the continued use of asbestos.

If asbestos-containing products are still being manufactured, then more Americans will be exposed to asbestos. That means that more Americans will die from asbestos-triggered illnesses like asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer.

It is up to all American citizens to join the fight to ban asbestos and end the epidemic of men and women dying from asbestos-related diseases. Help save American lives – Contact your representatives in office today, and demand that asbestos is banned completely and permanently.

If you were diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible for financial compensation (like a mesothelioma settlement or asbestos trust fund claim payout) from a mesothelioma lawsuit.

Call (800) 995-1212 to learn more about your legal options today.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: May 19, 2022