When you see it up close, it may strike you as nothing out of the ordinary – it may look just like any other rock you’d examine in a geology class: white crystalline texture, shiny striated lines. If you saw it tossed into a rock heap you’d be hard-pressed to pick it out from any other geological oddity. But, of course, looks can be deceiving.
Asbestos is no unsuspecting rock. It is a highly lethal substance – so deadly that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asserts there is “no safe level” of exposure to the mineral. Its effects are not immediate and may take 20-50 years to present themselves — usually in the form of nasty cancers like mesothelioma, or in respiratory illnesses like asbestosis. And yet, for much of the last century, this mineral was mined and used in manufacturing on a massive industrial scale, eventually finding its way into everything from wall insulation to brake linings.
Asbestos’s long-term industry popularity is a classic example of cruel irony. Vehicle and construction companies often relied on the mineral for its fire-resistant properties. So, in order to save lives in the short term, manufacturers began using a substance that kills in the long run. But why did it take them so long to discover the truth? Well, the truth is, it didn’t take long.
In fact, there is ample evidence showing that asbestos industry companies knew about the dangers of this naturally occurring mineral since day 1.
“Why Not Die from It?”
As early as 1900, an English doctor identified asbestos fibers in the lungs of deceased factory workers. The disease “asbestosis,” which is attributed to the mineral, was first mentioned by doctors in the early 1930s. Mesothelioma, which was first described in 1931, was connected to asbestos exposure as early as the 1940s.
By the 1960s, the science was pretty blunt in its understanding that asbestos causes asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other deadly diseases. And yet, the very manufacturers who were handling asbestos leveraged their considerable power towards keeping the truth under wraps. Confidential internal memos circulated throughout the offices and factories of Babcock and Wilcox, Turner & Newall, and the National Gypsum Company, among others, all disclosing the dangers of the mineral while refusing to acknowledge the same in public. One particularly callous memo from a director at Bendix Corporation (now Honeywell) stated the following:
“My answer to the problem is: If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it?”
The British firm Turner & Newall, one of the largest asbestos makers in the world, admitted in 1961 that “the only really safe number of asbestos fibers in the works environment is nil.” But that didn’t stop the company from dumping asbestos waste all over the small town of Ambler, Pennsylvania, creating an environmental crisis that still persists to this day.
The Enduring Corporate Conspiracy
Assisted by crafty PR firms, the cover-up continued into the 1970s, all the while millions of Americans were exposed to a lethal carcinogenic mineral for which there were few, if any, workplace safeguards. And this was not just a conspiracy among 2 or 3 companies. It was an industry-wide practice carried out by brands like Exxon, Ford Motor Company, Honeywell, Daimler-Chrysler, and Union Carbide. These multi-billion-dollar companies chose to muddle the facts in order to maintain profits — all at the expense of human lives.
But, by the mid-1970s, some of the lies that the industry had been telling the public began to unravel. Public outrage over the prevalence of asbestos reached a fever pitch. Still, manufacturers of asbestos-containing products held fast in their belief that silence is preferable to the truth — at least when it comes to their bottom lines. And so it is not too surprising to hear an industry expert claim the following in a 1973 speech:
“The ‘good’ that asbestos does in protecting lives and property is of no concern to the press… The press relations battle will therefore be won, not when the media starts to print positive or balanced articles about asbestos, but when the press ceases to print anything about asbestos at all.”
The Truth Rears Its Ugly Head
All of the PR in the world couldn’t keep the truth under wraps. Today, fortunately, most Americans understand that asbestos is dangerous, and that it is not to be handled without proper know-how. If there has been any victory in the fight to control the scourge of this carcinogen, it is public awareness. But it’s still not enough – because the toll asbestos continues to take on public health is an entirely preventable one.
And yet, to add insult to injury, the very corporations that attempted for decades to conceal the truth are now using their strength to withhold accountability. Honeywell, for example, is one largest corporate backers of the so-called FACT Act, a Congressional bill that would complicate and, most likely, deny compensation to the dying victims of asbestos exposure. That unfortunate bill has already passed the House of Representatives and is now waiting Senate approval.
To say that the effects of asbestos are limited to the medical and scientific community would be a tragic lie. The true story of this inconspicuous rock is about the ugly side of human nature — namely, greed, corruption, and deceit.