Commercial asbestos mines started up all over the globe in the late 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took hold. Before long, the asbestos business became a major industry employing thousands of employees. Company bosses enjoying soaring profit margins were therefore dismayed when physicians began to suspect there might be a link between asbestos and respiratory diseases, including cancer. For the best part of a century these companies engaged in a long campaign to suppress the truth.
A Viennese doctor wrote about pervasive lung scarring among asbestos textile workers before the end of the 19th century. Shortly afterwards, asbestos fibres were discovered by a British physician in the lung tissue of an asbestos worker who had died of pulmonary fibrosis. By the end of the First World War, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics picked up on an unusually high death rate among asbestos workers. A few years later, the term ‘asbestosis’ was coined and articles appeared in the British Medical Journal.
Several American asbestos companies, such as Johns Manville and Raybestos-Manhattan, funded research conducted by the Saranac Laboratory in New York relating to the health risks of asbestos exposure. Dismayed by the findings, the CEOs of these companies demonstrated sheer disregard for human life as they obfuscated and concealed the dangers of their product. The risks involving asbestos were widely accepted in medical circles at the outbreak of the Second World War but its manufacture continued to soar. Executives in the industry took advantage of the fact that the latency period for asbestos cancer can be anywhere between 10-40 years and they hid the scientific information from the public eye for decades, callously exposing millions of workers to serious illness.
In the early 1940s, the president of Johns Manville referred to another company as “a bunch of fools” for notifying employees who had asbestosis. When asked by another company’s representative, “Do you mean to tell me you would let them work until they drop dead?”, he responded: “Yes. We save a lot of money that way.” In 1966, an executive with Bendix Corporation wrote, “My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it?”
The scandal has not yet run its course. Unfortunately, the asbestos industry was so successful for so long that it is proving extremely difficult to eradicate it. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s alleged by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that each year 30 million pounds of asbestos is still imported into the United States (for use in construction industry products) and more than one million workers are exposed to it. Each year, thousands of people continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.