A History of Asbestos Part IV: Known Killer Goes to War

by Sokolove Law

Picture it: The year is 1939. World War II has just begun and battles are underway clear across Europe. And back on the home front? The annual World’s Fair is taking place in New York City and citizens from all over the globe are visiting the United States to take part in the famed public exhibition.

What was standing at the entrance of the World’s Fair to greet all of these domestic and foreign visitors? A giant Asbestos Man – in statue-like form – seen stepping out from a flaming pit. The Asbestos Man display stood prominently as a symbol of man’s ability to control heat and protect himself from fire.

Just as in ancient times and all throughout the Middle Ages, the fibrous mineral was a valued commodity. Large-scale mining and commercial production of asbestos-containing products was advancing. Asbestos was strategically important — both for the war effort and industrial growth. And, as far as most Americans knew, there was no cause for crisis — at least not yet.

Asbestos Gains a Strategic Significance

Johns-Manville — a major producer of asbestos-containing products, including insulation, roofing, and automotive packing materials — was the brainchild of the Asbestos Man display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Calling asbestos a “service to humanity,” Johns-Manville made an extraordinary effort to teach the public about the mineral’s “invaluable” fire-resistant traits just as World War II was beginning to unfold. Part and parcel with the war came a global surge in demand for asbestos-made products. Of the time period, British historian R. Murray wrote:

During the second world war the overwhelming priority was the winning of the war. Anything else was entirely subordinate. Asbestos was seen as a primary protection against fire resulting from enemy attack and so the more asbestos the greater the protection.”

Asbestos stockpiling began. In the U.S., there was a sense of desperation and urgency, and government officials went so far as to set up an asbestos exchange program with the Soviet Union. The government also imposed severe restrictions on nonessential asbestos applications so that the fiber could be strategically used for the manufacturing of products such as parachute flares, bazooka shells, and torpedoes.

Asbestos was also being heavily used by the U.S. Navy. In shipyards across the country, men and women worked day and night to amass over a thousand ships during the war. The Merchant Marine built another 5,000 ships. Each and every one of these ships was heavily insulated with asbestos.

Asbestos’s Last Surge

A boom in construction after World War II triggered what is generally considered by historians to be the last global asbestos surge. Structural engineers took advantage of asbestos’s strength and durability by working asbestos-composed cement products into their designs. Asbestos also became an integral part in the construction of high-rise buildings where asbestos coatings were sprayed on the structures to protect them from potential fire damage. Even today, these coatings are still present on many older buildings.

The extent of asbestos use during the “last surge” became even more extraordinary as manufacturers took advantage of asbestos’ fire-resistant and filtering properties. During the mid-to-late 40s asbestos was used by the U.S. Postal Service; the fiber was woven into fireproof mailbags. Beverages, like fruit juice and wine, were filtered and purified with asbestos fibers because of asbestos’s resistance to acid. The mineral even made an appearance on the big screen in The Wizard of Oz. A little known fact? The Wicked Witch of the West’s burning broomstick contained asbestos.

Health Concerns over Asbestos Escalate

Suspicions over alleged health risks related to asbestos slowly began to grow after the war. Later, during the mid-1960s it became apparent to health officials that even low levels of asbestos posed significant health hazards. Exposure to the mineral was shown to cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and as of 1960, mesothelioma — a deadly cancer.

The public’s perception of asbestos began to change as well. A large number of people, including thousands of World War II veterans — those men and women who worked as ship insulators and aviation mechanics alongside hazardous construction materials — were at risk for serious lung damage.

It was during the late 60s that Johns-Manville made headlines once again. This time the company was facing public backlash over reports alleging it had consciously chosen to keep from its employees information about the long-lasting health risks associated with asbestos exposure. In 1969, Johns-Manville was held liable for the 285 employees who developed severe asbestosis and paid $1 Million in compensation claims.

In the years that followed, thousands more people developed serious illnesses from asbestos exposure from Johns-Manville products and filed lawsuits. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1982. In 1988, the company emerged from bankruptcy and founded the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust which, even today, resolves asbestos personal injury claims resulting from exposure.

Asbestos in the 1970s and on

On the heels of the first Johns-Manville payout, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant. All forms of asbestos became prohibited in the U.S. until 1991 when the EPA’s ban was overturned, allowing some products to be used again. Among the products not banned in the U.S. are:

  • Cement corrugated sheet
  • Cement flat sheet
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Cement shingle
  • Millboard
  • Cement pipe
  • Automatic transmission components
  • Clutch facings
  • Friction materials
  • Disk brake pads
  • Drum brake linings
  • Brake blocks
  • Gaskets
  • Non-roofing coatings
  • Roof coatings

The United Kingdom, however, underwent a slower process to regulate asbestos imports and industrial use, but just one year before the end of the 20th century, a 1999 ruling banned asbestos in the U.K.

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