The word asbestos comes from the Greek meaning unquenchable or indestructible. Appropriately defined, asbestos actually refers to a group of naturally occurring minerals with outstanding heat-resistant qualities. Thanks to those heat-resistant and insulating properties, asbestos was also used in many buildings built before 1980. However, no matter how fireproof asbestos materials were in the past or in the present, it is still responsible for killing thousands of people. It protects victims from being burned on the outside, but the damage asbestos does to the lungs and other internal organs is devastating.
Asbestos has long been considered a magic mineral because of these many useful properties, and asbestos has been incorporated into more than 3,000 different industrial and household products.
The danger of asbestos exposure arises from inhaling and swallowing tiny dust particles and fibers. Those particles are released when asbestos is broken up or disturbed in any way. Once the asbestos fibers have been inhaled or swallowed, they lodge in the lining around the lungs, heart or abdominal cavity, while going unnoticed for decades. Eventually, they cause scarring and cell changes that can become a malignant cancer known as mesothelioma. Even when mesothelioma does not develop, asbestosis and other asbestos-related conditions could cause pain, restricted breathing or other health difficulties.
For several decades, the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products and many of the companies that employed the men and women who worked with and around those products knowingly exposed workers to asbestos hazards. The testimony of Charles H. Roemer best illustrates the industry’s callous attitude. Roemer, a former employee of Unarco, described a meeting between Unarco officials and Johns-Manville President Lewis Brown and his brother, Vandiver Brown, in the early 1940s: “I’ll never forget, I turned to Mr. Brown, one of the Browns made this crack (that Unarco managers were a bunch of fools for notifying employees who had asbestosis), and I said, ‘Mr. Brown, do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they dropped dead?’ He said, ‘Yes. We save a lot of money that way.’”
This unsympathetic attitude continually shows itself in industry documents. The companies that manufactured and used asbestos products had many sources of information exposing the hazards of asbestos: scientific and medical literature, industry trade organizations, and corporate documents from industry members. These incidents and documents show a conscious disregard for the safety of the American worker. This attitude is best highlighted by a September 12, 1966 document from E.A. Martin, director of Purchases for Bendix Corporation: “My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it. There’s got to be some cause.”
Time and again, it has been proven the victims of mesothelioma are those who worked long, hard years in shipyards, power plants, refineries, construction trades and other laborious jobs and were forced to pay the ultimate price for the asbestos industry’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the known health hazards associated with asbestos. The catastrophe of asbestos hazards was avoidable, had the asbestos industry acted to protect the innocent. Rather, the industry acted to protect profit and left a public health crisis in its wake––one that continues today.