• Asbestos papers show health risks were known decades ago Wednesday, December 23, 2009

    Asbestos-containing products have killed tens of thousands of Americans. Even though asbestos was banned in this country in the mid-1970’s, many deaths still occur each year from exposure to asbestos which happened years ago.  

    Many victims are military veterans and naval shipyard workers who became exposed to the deadly fibers while protecting our nation. They never saw the disease coming, but corporate executives who became rich off asbestos knew well the dangers.

    Documents that have become public largely because of asbestos-related litigation prove that captains of the asbestos industry knew about the hazards in the 1930s. Some cynical executives shrugged off the dangers as late as the 1960s. By the 1970s, documents show, industry leaders were coaching people about how to allay public concerns.

    In the 1930s and 1940s, Sumner Simpson was president of Raybestos Manhattan, Inc., a prominent manufacturing company based on Connecticut that used asbestos in its products. The company’s history calls Sumner a visionary.

    Letters, studies and other documents he wrote, received and stowed have been dubbed the Sumner Simpson Papers, and likened to the Pentagon Papers of the asbestos industry. They prove knowledge about the dangers of asbestos at the highest levels dating back eight decades.

    The editor of an occupational journal sent Sumner a letter dated Sept. 25, 1935, seeking permission to publish an article about the hazards of asbestos.

    “Always you have requested that for certain obvious reasons we publish nothing and naturally your wishes have been respected.”

    On Oct. 1, 1935, Simpson wrote a note to his colleague Vandiver Brown, secretary of Johns-Manville Corp., the preeminent asbestos miner, manufacturer, seller and distributor in the Western world between the 1930s and the 1970s.

    “I think the less said about asbestos the better off we are … “

    Brown replied two days later, Oct. 3, 1935:

    “I quite agree with you that our interests are best served by having asbestosis receive the minimum publicity.”

    Brown went on to suggest that if an article were to appear that it use “American data rather than English.” The reason was clear: The American study was sponsored by Raybestos, Manville, and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the insurance carrier for the asbestos giants, and drew far less alarming conclusions than British studies.

    Edward Ames wrote an infamous memo dated Jan. 7, 1942. Ames was in marketing for  Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp.  In the 1940’s, Owens-Corning sought to compete with asbestos insulation makers by selling fiberglass-based insulation.  In his memo, produced in discovery during a lawsuit in the early 1980’s, Ames urges that his firm compete with the asbestos industry by pointing out the dangers of asbestos.

    “The following plan is suggested: 1) Gather as a weapon-in-reserve an impressive file of photostats of medical literature on asbestosis … This file would cover five or six hundred pages, which can be microphotographed in the library of the Surgeon General in Washington or in some other medical library.”

    Tragically, Owens-Corning decided in about 1952 to make and sell asbestos containing insulation, and became Johns-Manville’s main competitor in most of the U.S. from the mid-1950’s into the mid-1970’s.

    Twenty years later, the cognoscenti knew of the dangers even as they expanded the uses of asbestos while keeping workers in the dark. Asbestos was used extensively in braking and clutch systems for cars, trucks and industrial machinery.  Bendix was a major manufacturer in this area through the 1990’s. 

    By the mid-1960s, some consumers and sellers became concerned about the health implications of asbestos fibers. Ed A. Martin was a Bendix officer, who wrote to a major supplier of the asbestos fiber in Bendix’ products in this letter, dated Sept. 12, 1966:

    “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.”

    By 1971, industry executives started taking a different tact. A Union Carbide letter dated Dec. 31, 1971, describes one of its products, Calidria, and says of the customer:

    “He did not even realize Calidria was asbestos!” 

    “I chose not to rock the boat with any warnings or suggestions.”

    As more people started asking questions, industry executives started taking a different tact. In June 1972, executives suggested a script for sales persons who might be confronted by worried customers:

    “Set the mood. Controlling the conversation is paramount.”

    The letter goes on to urge that if customers become irate

    “A certain amount of aggressiveness may be effective.”

    Asbestos’ cancer-causing potential is well-known, and described by the National Cancer Institute here. The onset of illness can come decades after their exposure.

    Asbestos’ toll continues to mount, in lives and dollars. One jury in Washington state recently awarded $10 million toHenry Barabin, a retired Crown Zellerbach Paper Mill, and his wife, Geraldine. 

    In a study released in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control found that 18,068 people died from malignant mesothelioma in a seven-year period ending in 2005, and that the number of deaths is rising, from 2,482 in 1999 to 2,704 in 2005. Here is a link to the study, and a link to a news article about the study. Here is a list of products compiled by the EPA that contain asbestos.

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