A great awakening of public knowledge: asbestos makes history, 1960-1980
At the start of 1960, almost everyone who was being exposed to asbestos had no that it could cause fatal illnesses like Mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer and asbestosis. At the start of 1960, almost to the company, asbestos corporations not only knew the dangers of asbestos, but they had been keeping that knowledge from the public.
In 1961, the year President Kennedy spoke of space age materials and putting a man on the moon, asbestos companies had been hiding the “unfavorable” results of asbestos studies for over fifteen years. (Asbestos Hearings, 1978; citing a letter from 1934) As space age materials fueled the space race, a toxic ancient mineral—asbestos—exposed millions, sickened hundreds of thousands, and killed thousands each year.
By 1980, through a series of painful progressions, the millions of people exposed to asbestos realized that the product they had considered as harmless as snow was going to cause tens of thousands of asbestos-related deaths every year. Shortly after the end of this period, the number of lawsuits against asbestos companies would top 25,000, illustrating the great awakening of the general public to the asbestos crisis.
Turning points in asbestos history: 1964 study, 1966 lawsuit, 1970 EPA, 1978 congressional hearings
Between the years 1960 and 1980, some of the most important events in American asbestos history happened: Dr. Irving J. Selikoff's 1964 study that brought the dangers of asbestos to the public eye, the first asbestos lawsuit (filed in 1966), the formation of the EPA, OSHA and NIOSH in the early 1970s (http://www.osha.gov/osha40/timeline.html), and the congressional hearings in 1978, when internal documents from asbestos companies revealed the asbestos industry's big lie.
These were years of change in every aspect of life, and the so-called golden years of the asbestos industry—from World War II to 1964—came to an end in 1964, with a damning study by lung doctor Irving Selikoff, who went on to become an advocate for safe workplaces. (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE7DE1E3CF931A15756C0A964958260)
When dangers became public, asbestos companies claimed plausible deniability
At the Conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos in 1964, Dr. Irving Selikoff addressed an audience of 400 doctors with a simple, frightening message: asbestos was killing the people who worked with it.
Dr. William Rom, professor of medicine and environmental medicine at New York University Medical Center, stated that “Dr. Selikoff's meeting in 1964 is the most important thing that has happened this century in occupational safety and health.... Nothing was the same after all the evidence he produced about asbestos and its links to cancer.”
Documented knowledge of the dangers of asbestos within the asbestos industry dates back to the start of the 20th century (http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/documents/), but since public awareness of asbestos exposure began in the 1960s, asbestos companies were able to feign surprise at Dr. Selikoff's findings—at least until 1966, when Claude Tomplait filed the first asbestos lawsuit in America, and the asbestos companies had to answer to the legal system.
Beaumont, Texas, 1966: The first asbestos lawsuit
Claude Tomplait filed the first asbestos lawsuit in America. Mr. Tomplait developed asbestosis from 20 years of installing asbestos, and filed suit against eleven asbestos companies that exposed him. He did not win his case, but in a suit filed later by Mr. Tomplait's coworker, Clarence Borel, the defendants were found guilty, and Mr. Borel received compensation. (The Encyclopedia of White Collar and Corporate Crime, A-I, Volume 1)
With Mr. Tomplait's disappointing lawsuit, and Mr. Borel's precedent-setting 1973 asbestos lawsuit, the legal world was changed forever. Asbestos corporations were no longer the invulnerable giants they had once been, and the victims of their negligence began receiving compensation for their losses.
In the 1970s, and especially the years after the 1978 Congressional hearings, more and more people sickened by asbestos began seeking compensation for their expensive and often fatal diseases:
“By early 1984, in courthouses throughout the country, more than 25,500 personal injury lawsuits were pending charging the asbestos companies with inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages on an unwary populace, with 500 additional lawsuits being filed every month.” (http://multinationalmonitor.org/hyper/issues/1987/04/asbestos.html)
Asbestos regulations were “the culmination of decades of reform”
Thanks to Dr. Selikoff and other researchers' findings, it was no longer possible for asbestos companies to claim their products were safe. They continued to claim that they had no knowledge, prior to 1964 that asbestos was harmful—another claim disproved by documents from 1918, 1934, 1935, 1948, and so on. (http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/documents/)
With asbestos now a known health risk, and other concerns about environmental safety cropping up simultaneously, Richard Nixon signed “the bipartisan Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970... [which] led to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.” (http://www.osha.gov/osha40/timeline.html)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), like NIOSH and OSHA, came in 1970 “as a culmination of decades of reform.” From the 1970s into the 1980s, these organizations became more sophisticated, and were able to influence businesses to make more responsible environmental and social decisions. (http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/epa/15c.htm)
1978 Congressional hearings
In the wake of the lawsuits that followed Clarence Borel's victory in court (which he did not live to see), asbestos companies found themselves on trial again and again, and were slow to produce documents. (Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, Manuel Velasquez)
When Congress demanded that asbestos companies turn in internal documents in hearings during October and November of 1978, the evidence was damning indeed:
In a memo dated September 12, 1966, a Bendix (now part of Honeywell) employee wrote to a colleague at Johns-Manville: “My answer to the problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it.” (http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/documents/doc_BX-091266.php)
A similar memo from Thomas Egan to Bob Chaney, dated June 1, 1970, reads:
Went to Winnipeg and met Whittaker. He can't understand why you fellows have been so quiet about asbestos? I made no comment, and he proceeded to tell me what an unethical competitor Bob Chaney is. I stated that you hate to lose, but agreed completely on your scruples.
Stay unscrupulous, unethical, mean and selling Mono-Kote.
Seriously, the fiber boys are really worried about this situation and as soon as we have the new Mono-Kote, lay it on them in your area.
Thomas F. Egan”
If there was ever any question about asbestos industry knowledge of the risks of asbestos, inter-company memos put all questions to rest.
Asbestos in the here and now
Weitz & Luxenberg is thankful for the work of trailblazers like Mr. Tomplait, Mr. Borel, Dr. Selikoff, and the countless others who made sure that the asbestos industry obeyed the new regulations, and made reparations to the people they sickened and to the families of those who died as a result of the companies' negligence.
For all the advances we've made as a country, against asbestos and against unsafe work environments, the fallout from the irresponsible years of asbestos corporations' heyday continues, in the form of terrible asbestos diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma.
If you suffer from an asbestos disease and want to explore your legal options, contact Weitz & Luxenberg by phone or fill out a form for a free legal consultation.
Asbestos Hearings: U.S. Congress, House, Asbestos-related Occupational Diseases: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Compensation, Health, and Safety of the Committee on Education and Labor, 94th Congress, 2nd session, 23 and 24 October; 13 and 14 November 1978, p643.
The Encyclopedia of White Collar and Corporate Crime, A-I, Volume 1, Lawrence Salinger, PhD. P466
Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 6th Ed., Manuel Velasquez