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A History of Havoc: Asbestos Use in the United States

 “Asbestos use did not originate in the United States, but it has been utilized here for many years.  Asbestos manufacturing was at its height fifty years ago. At the time, it was pressed, spun and woven into a number of products from break shoes to roofing materials, from insulation to gloves. Production soared until the 1970s, when it was shown that asbestos was linked to cancer of the respiratory and digestive systems.” (EPA)

Asbestos is a dangerous human carcinogen that wreaks havoc on the internal organs and can cause slow, agonizing death. Since 1979, over “47,073 Americans have died from mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis,” (Environmental Working Group) and that figure is steadily increasing. Despite its troubled history, asbestos is still being used in the United States and so long as that continues to be the case, there will be many more generations of sick people.

The dangers of asbestos were known for years in the United States

The dangers of asbestos have been known in the United States since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. So why did so many companies use it? The simple answer is convenience.  In construction especially (though not exclusively) there was high demand for a product that was “aesthetically pleasing, easy to handle, adjustable to architectural design, weather proof, rot proof,  fireproof and free from constant maintenance expenses.” (Asbestos Cancer) Asbestos was the only material that fit these rigid specifications, which was why it was used in so many industries.

As part of our ongoing commitment to providing you with reliable information on asbestos related issues, Weitz & Luxenberg updates these pages frequently. If you have any questions or concerns about asbestos, or any of the diseases it causes such as mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer and asbestos lung cancer, please do not hesitate to contact Weitz & Luxenberg.

The History of Asbestos in the United States

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was born in Europe in the 1700s and took hold in the United States in the 1800s. This period heralded the use of complex machinery and a decrease in manual labor. It ushered in a myriad of new, potentially lucrative occupations such as “steel manufacturing and petroleum refining.” (Eastern Illinois University) In addition to these new industries, a number of new products were developed such as phonographs, sewing machines, telegraphs and telephones, among others.

The proliferation of these new businesses and products did wonders for the American economy, but it came at the expense of many of the men, women and children responsible for their development and maintenance. Most, if not all, of these people were impoverished and took up grueling factory jobs for scant pay. Moreover, the factory employees (some as young as five years old), were frequently exposed to high levels of toxic fumes, which “would almost certainly result in chronic conditions or disease.” (Eastern Illinois University)

The Industrial Revolution birthed the railroad industry, which enjoyed astronomical growth because it permitted those living in rural, isolated parts of the country to have access to the major metropolises. Railroad workers were susceptible to mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer and asbestosis because of the nature of their tasks, which entailed the handling of asbestos products.  Brake pads and gaskets, among other products, had to be cut, hammered and otherwise transformed before they could be installed. Workers involved in the automobile industry faced similar risks because they also handled asbestos tools and equipment.  

The risk of asbestos exposure was present in the home, too.  Government legislation regulating asbestos use would not come till the 1970s, which meant that American homeowners in the 1800s were at risk of exposure by simply being in their living quarters. “The main areas of the house where asbestos could be found were basements, attics and roofs. As a heat insulator, asbestos was placed in, around or between steel beams, water and sewer pipes and boilers.” (City Web)   It was also included in cement, paint, plaster and other mixtures.

It isn’t possible to know the exact amount of people who died from asbestos exposure, because the diagnostics and other medical technology available today simply didn’t exist in the 1800s. What is certain is that we owe the development of many of our modern luxuries to the men, women and children who labored during the Industrial Revolution, often at their own peril.

Asbestos in the United States Navy

The United States Navy was first introduced to asbestos around the 1930s.  The deadly material was used to insulate virtually every chamber in the navy vessels: the engine room, boiler room, navigation room, mess hall and even the sleeping quarters. Asbestos was also employed in the production of over 300 products necessary in the construction and preservation of navy vessels, such as valves, adhesives, cables and gaskets.  In spite of the warnings distributed by the Navy’s Surgeon General in 1939, the Navy stubbornly continued to use asbestos for decades, indifferent to the grave danger it posed to hundreds, if not thousands of sailors and other Navy personnel.

Years after they’d been exposed to asbestos between the 1940s and 1950s, former employees of the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard faced serious asbestos related health problems. Not long after Weitz & Luxenberg was established, the firm helped these people get compensation for their suffering. It was one of our landmark cases.

America at War: World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War

Many of the Veterans of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War were exposed to asbestos while aboard military aircraft and navy ships and developed mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer and asbestosis years after their service concluded.

World War I

World War I was regarded as the first modern war that involved America, because it utilized technology that had never been used before. Unfortunately, many of the apparatuses of the period contained asbestos, such as various sea vessels and aircrafts, as well as hundreds of other war devices and products.  Efficient production in wartime outweighed public health concerns.

One of the nation’s oldest shipyards, the Boston Naval Shipyard, played an essential role during World War I.  It “employed a variety of workers including shipbuilders, plumbers, machinists, electricians, sail makers, blacksmiths and carpenters” (Ezine Articles) who all worked together to fortify American war efforts.  “During the war, it took between ten and twelve months to build a single ship,” (Women’s Health), which meant ten to twelve months or more of daily exposure to asbestos and a host of other carcinogens.

With World War I came the advent of the submarine, which could “enter and operate effectively in waters that were inaccessible to surface ships.” (Sea Your History) The submarine revolutionized the way war was fought, but its lack of ventilation was perilous for the soldiers on board, because there was no escape from the carcinogenic materials inside.  The same risk applied to the soldiers on the battlefield, who wore gas masks equipped with asbestos filters. The masks were intended to protect the wearer from dangerous chemicals, but of course, they did just the opposite.

World War II

“When my dad began to have chest pains and heart palpitations, his doctor diagnosed him with pericardial mesothelioma. Dad explained his history of employment, thinking about every opportunity through which he could have been exposed to asbestos. The first was right after high school, when he was working in the shipyards of Chester, Pennsylvania, just before World War II…..”

During World War II, the United States controlled shipyards on both the East and the West Coast. One of the largest was the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, located on the Roosevelt Naval Base in California. This base was instrumental in America’s war effort, because of its state of the art facilities and its proximity to the ocean. 

Over the duration of the war, workers at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard were expected to perform a number of potentially life threatening tasks.  They were in charge of repairing damaged Navy vessels and constructing new ones.  They were also skilled at electrical work, sandblasting, welding, pipe fitting and insulating.  Most if not all of these activities involved asbestos in some capacity, which meant that the workers were in contact with the deadly fibers on a regular basis.

The Long Beach Naval Shipyard became inactive in 1950, shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Like most Americans, the shipyard employees celebrated the Allied victory, but as the decades passed, these men and women couldn’t perform the most basic tasks without tremendous effort.  This was not merely a symptom of advanced age, but the result of their exposure to asbestos as young people during the war. 

There was some hope for the workers afflicted by asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis, but medical professionals could offer few options for those with mesothelioma, a deadly, incurable cancer linked exclusively to asbestos exposure.  Approximately 100,000 workers from the Long Beach Navy Shipyard perished from an asbestos related disease.

The Vietnam War

Throughout this infamous war, Vietnam soldiers contended with an enemy they didn’t even know they had: asbestos.  They were “exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos in several ways,” (Vietnam Veterans Against The War) but most were in contact with asbestos while operating military aircraft and naval ships.  The government regulations on asbestos use didn’t apply to the military “until the 1980s, which was much too late to protect Vietnam veterans.” (Asbestos News)

Now in their fifties, sixties and older, many Vietnam veterans are battling serious asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma. It is estimated that “the vast majority of Vietnam veterans will lose their battle with the disease, and less than 1% will survive” (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) beyond the projected 1 year survival rate.

Asbestos use in America in subsequent decades


In 1971, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began to regulate asbestos exposure.  Throughout the 1970s, as the dangers of asbestos were better understood, OSHA continuously lowered the limit of asbestos exposure in work environments. They took other factors such as time of exposure and the amount of asbestos fibers present into account.

At OSHA’s inception in 1970, the organization “established a permissible exposure limit (PEL) in workplace air of 12 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

In December 1971, OSHA “established a PEL of 5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter as an 8 hour time weighted average (TWA) and a peak exposure level of 10 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

In June 1972, “OSHA promulgated a final standard that established an 8 hour TWA PEL of 5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter, and a ceiling limit of 10 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

In October 1975, as evidence of the ill effects of asbestos (irrespective of amount of exposure) proliferated, OSHA once again made modifications; reducing the “8 hour TWA to 0.5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter, with a ceiling limit of 5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter for 15 minutes.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)  This was applicable to all industries, except construction, even though construction workers stood the greatest risk of asbestos exposure.

In 1975, OSHA “reduced the 8 hour TWA limit to 2 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

Note: OSHA continued to make modifications well into the 1980s, but the asbestos problem persisted. Other government organizations such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weighed in on the asbestos controversy.


In November 1983 “OSHA published an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETA) that further lowered the asbestos limit.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

In April 1984, OSHA “published a notice of proposed rulemaking for a standard covering occupational exposure to asbestos in all workplaces” (Center for Asbestos Safety) under its authority.

 In 1986, OSHA released two standards, “one governing occupational exposure to asbestos in general industry workplaces, while the other applied exclusively to construction workplaces.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

In 1989 The EPA initiated “a series of policy dialogue meetings, in an attempt to reach agreement on issues concerning asbestos in public and commercial buildings. The rather diverse group of participants included various banks, real estate developers and asbestos companies. These parties didn’t reach a mutual consensus on everything discussed, but they did acknowledge “that the presence of asbestos should be known to building service workers.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

Also in July 1989, EPA focused its attention on asbestos products, issuing a final rule banning most products containing asbestos. This rule would be overturned in 1991 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.


In January 1990, OSHA, having discovered the disastrous effects of asbestos exposure combined with tobacco smoke, “prohibited cigarette smoking in areas where occupational exposure to asbestos took place.” They also initiated training programs, intended to “specifically instruct employees about how to handle asbestos.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)

In November 1992, under pressure from the labor community to issue a building inspection rule, OSHA “announced that it would take action to protect building workers from inadvertent exposure to asbestos.” (Center for Asbestos Safety) This was done in response to a lawsuit brought against the EPA by the Service Employees International Union. 


In spite of the thousands of people who have succumbed to an asbestos related disease, and the countless lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of those people, asbestos remains a formidable concern. “In fact, in 2001, over 29 million pounds were imported for use in products throughout the U.S.” (Environmental Working Group)

Weitz & Luxenberg: We Can Get Justice For You

Weitz & Luxenberg has been a leader in asbestos related litigation for over two decades. We have achieved more favorable verdicts and settlements for people just like you who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis following exposure to asbestos.  Our attorneys have the qualifications and experience necessary to get you the justice and compensation you deserve.

If you would like a free legal review of your mesothelioma case, please fill out the form on this page. All communication will be strictly confidential, and there is no fee unless we secure a monetary verdict or settlement for you.


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