Asbestos Cover-Up Joey Rosenberg

Asbestos Cover-Up

Court documents provide irrefutable proof the asbestos industry leveraged its power and influence to keep workers and the public in the dark about the hazards of asbestos. Dozens of companies are implicated in the decades-long cover-up.

Asbestos Mine
‘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.’
Excerpt of a 1984 deposition
Meeting between Brown, Johns Manville attorney Vandiver Brown and officials from the asbestos firm Unarco

As early as the late 19th century, scattered reports on the health risks of asbestos emerged in Canada, Europe and the U.S. By the 1920s, leading medical journals had published articles linking asbestos to asbestosis, a new and sometimes fatal lung condition where inhaled asbestos scars the lungs and makes breathing difficult.

The disease was a serious problem for asbestos workers, who often toiled in thick clouds of asbestos dust each day. Even in the 1920s, doctors believed asbestosis could be prevented by limiting exposure to asbestos. It would take several decades, however, before asbestos was properly regulated in the U.S. and workers learned their jobs could lead to cancer and other serious health complications years down the line.

Asbestos Mine

Sarnia 2012: Cancer Alley; Asbestos Kills - Stop Exporting Death

Favoring Profits over Health of Workers

Scientists established a connection between asbestos and lung cancer in the 1930s. Around the same time, doctors were advancing their understanding of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lining of the lungs caused almost exclusively by asbestos.

While evidence about the harmful effects of asbestos continued to grow, so did the influence of the asbestos companies. Between 1940 and 1980, the business expanded into a multibillion dollar industry that employed more than 200,000 people.

The success of these companies hinged on keeping the health risks of asbestos a secret — but it was asbestos workers and consumers who paid the price. In order to keep the industry alive and prosperous, many companies took steps to ensure miners, factory workers and the public knew nothing about the true dangers of asbestos.

Company Knowledge of Asbestos Risks

Court evidence has revealed multiple companies that contributed to the asbestos cover-up. Some concealed medical research that may have promoted stricter asbestos regulations and safer work practices. Others worked their employees to an early grave, refusing to show sick workers their X-ray scans that showed signs of respiratory disease. Some of the most incriminating examples follow, but during the asbestos boom years, many companies played a part.

Asbestos Factories
1858
John's Manville Logo

Henry Ward Johns and C.B. Manville founded Johns Manville.

1924
medical documents

William Cooke published the first medical paper on asbestosis.

1929
Dr. Anthony Lanza

Asbestos industry leaders asked Dr. Anthony Lanza, assistant medical director at Metropolitan Life Insurance, to investigate asbestos disease among asbestos factory workers. The industry concealed results that showed high rates of asbestos-related illness.

1931
P. Klemperer

P. Klemperer and C.B. Rabin explained diagnosis and pathology of pleural mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the lining of the lungs.

1932
Raybestos Logo

Raybestos-Manhattan and Johns Manville manipulated a study on asbestos textile workers to downplay the seriousness of asbestosis.

Turner & Newall Logo

Turner & Newall convinced British government officials to limit asbestos regulations and safety inspections.

1933
Metlife Logo

Lanza objected to hanging asbestos warning signs at a Johns Manville plant in Illinois because of the potential “legal situation.”

1935
raw asbestos

London pathologist Steven Gloyne reported a case of lung cancer associated with asbestosis and suggested asbestos as a possible cause for mesothelioma.

John's Manville Logo

Raybestos-Manhattan president Sumner Simpson wrote, “The less said about asbestos, the better off we are,” in a letter to a Johns Manville attorney.

1940
John's Manville Logo

Johns Manville became a world leader in asbestos product sales.

1945
Metlife Logo

Metropolitan Life blocked a safety inspection at a Johns Manville asbestos factory in New Jersey.

1949
John's Manville Logo

Dr. Kenneth Smith, future medical director of Johns Manville, advised the company against telling its sick workers they have asbestosis.

1962
Dr. Irving Selikoff

Irving Selikoff and colleagues uncovered a definitive link between asbestos exposure and cancer.

1964
medical documents

Asbestos industry leaders claimed they had no knowledge of asbestos health risks prior to 1964, but confidential documents prove otherwise.

1966
Bendix Corporation Logo

In a confidential memo, a Bendix Corporation executive wrote, “If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it.”

1971
EPA Logo

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified asbestos as a hazardous air pollutant.

Legal Items

The first asbestos product lawsuit paved the way for thousands of future claims against asbestos companies.

Johns Manville

By most accounts, Johns Manville was the largest manufacturer of asbestos products and the leading asbestos supplier in the U.S. from the 1920s to the 1970s. Much of the company’s financial success over this period is attributed to Lewis H. Brown, an innovative businessman named president of the company in 1929.

Brown’s leadership helped elevate Johns Manville to No. 1 in worldwide asbestos product sales by the 1940s. It later came to light that he reached this milestone by placing company profits over the health of his workers, evidenced by countless internal memos, industry letters and courtroom depositions.

Workers bagging asbestos by hand

Chilling historical image of workers bagging raw asbestos by hand.

In a 1984 deposition describing a meeting between Brown, Johns Manville attorney Vandiver Brown and officials from the asbestos firm Unarco, Charles Roemer recalled Lewis Brown’s callous disregard for his employees’ health.

“I’ll never forget,” Roemer said. “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.’”

Decades earlier in 1949, Dr. Kenneth Smith, a local physician, sent a memo to Johns Manville headquarters concerning seven asbestos mill workers whose chest X-rays showed early signs of asbestosis. Smith advised company executives against sharing the test results with the workers, writing, “As long as the man is not disabled, it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace, and the company can benefit by his many years of experience.”

We now know that Brown took Smith’s advice and made it company policy, leaving sick workers completely uninformed as their health degraded. Brown later hired Smith as medical director of Johns Manville, confirming he shared the doctor’s cruel approach to occupational health.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company

While Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was not an asbestos business, it worked closely with asbestos companies to conceal the health effects of the toxic mineral. In 1944, the company insured more than a dozen big names in the industry, including Johns Manville, Raybestos-Manhattan, National Gypsum, Fibreboard and Flintkote.

Asbestos Pit Miners

Early image of an open pit asbestos mining operation.

Metropolitan Life knew about the high asbestosis rates at Johns Manville’s factory in Manville, New Jersey, as early as 1932, but succeeded in blocking an inspection for poor work conditions there in 1945. The company even convinced government officials that asbestos hazards were under control, despite having knowledge of confidential company-sponsored reports that found evidence of asbestosis in 20 percent of workers.

In 1933, a plant physician at a Johns Manville plant in Illinois asked Dr. Anthony Lanza, a full-time employee at Metropolitan Life from 1926 to 1948, about hanging warning posters to spread worker awareness of asbestos-related health risks. Lanza objected because of the potential “legal situation.”

Lanza’s early 1930s study on asbestos workers in the textile industry revealed that half of all workers with five to 10 years of exposure showed signs of asbestosis in X-rays. Of those with more than 15 years of exposure, a remarkable 87 percent suffered from lung disease. The asbestos industry blocked the publication of these findings for four years, and likely altered the data before the report was released.

Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc.

The Sumner Simpson Papers revealed private conversations that very arguably show a pattern of denial and disease and attempts at suppression of information … It further reflects a conscious effort by the industry in the 1930s to downplay, or arguably suppress, the dissemination of information to employees and the public for the fear of promotion of lawsuits.
Judge James
South Carolina Circuit Judge

Raybestos-Manhattan has been a leading manufacturer of asbestos-containing textiles, brake linings and other friction products since the 1920s, and continues to do business outside the asbestos industry today. Court documents have revealed the company played a crucial role in the asbestos cover-up, most notably by working with Johns Manville in the 1930s to conceal information about the dangers of asbestos.

A collection of documents known as the Sumner Simpson Papers, named after the president of Raybestos-Manhattan in the 1930s and 1940s, provide clear evidence that the company attempted to hide asbestos health risks from workers and the general public.

Raybestos-Manhattan and Johns Manville in 1932 convinced Lanza of Metropolitan Life to alter his study on asbestos textile workers to minimize the seriousness of asbestosis. Manville and Raybestos allegedly had Lanza remove a sentence from the report explaining, “It is possible for uncomplicated asbestosis to result fatally.”

In a 1935 letter, A.F. Rossiter of Asbestos Magazine implied Simpson had requested he block the publication of articles mentioning asbestos dust hazards. Soon after, Simpson sent a letter to Johns Manville attorney Vandiver Brown. “The less said about asbestos,” he wrote, “the better off we are.”

Bendix Corporation

Bendix Corporation, now known as Honeywell, began manufacturing asbestos friction materials for automobiles in 1939 out of Troy, New York. The company expanded its operations to Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1964 and was still producing asbestos-containing brake components in the U.S. as recently as 1997.

My answer to the problem is: If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it.
Ernie Martin
Director of purchases for Bendix Corporation

Ernie Martin, director of purchases for Bendix Corporation, in September 1966 shared an asbestos report with Noel Hendry, a sales manager at a Johns Manville asbestos mine in Quebec, Canada. The report predicted asbestos health risks may lead to undesirable government regulations.

In response, Hendry said, “I suppose we have to bear with people who have nothing better to do than create alarm, but we are not alarmed, and we live and sleep with the stuff.”

While current U.S. regulations limit workplace asbestos exposure to 0.2 fibers per cubic centimeter of air (f/cc), surveys at Johns Manville’s Canadian mine and various other mines and mills throughout Quebec in the 1950s revealed asbestos levels ranging from 23 to 720 f/cc. Clearly, there was cause for alarm.

As more evidence of the dangers of asbestos emerged, Johns Manville’s Asbestos Fiber Division sent a position paper titled "Asbestos and Human Health" to a Bendix manager. The paper stated the asbestos industry had invested millions in industrial hygiene and medical research, but it gave a misleading account of the health risks of asbestos. It featured section titles labeled “An Essential Product” and “No Risk Shown for General Public.”

Turner & Newall, Ltd.

In 1920, four U.K. asbestos businesses merged to form Turner & Newall, one of the first companies to industrialize asbestos. Like many of the major asbestos companies in the U.S., Turner & Newall made repeated efforts to hide asbestos health risks.

Abandoned Asbestos Factory

Main boiler-house building

While the company held many health and safety conferences, officials did not open the conversations to those unfamiliar with asbestosis, namely workers and their trade unions. Employees at Turner & Newall plants began dying of asbestos exposure in the 1920s, including a young asbestos worker who suffered a massive accumulation of fibers in her lungs. In her autopsy report, a doctor said the collection of fibers was so thick his knife almost appeared to grate as he cut into her left lung.

When the British government announced plans to enact the first regulations on the asbestos industry, Turner & Newall ensured industrial hygiene measures would only apply to manufacturing plants and not the end-use of asbestos products. Laws requiring regular medical examinations for asbestos workers came next, but Turner & Newall convinced the government to exclude asbestos insulation workers from mandatory testing. Besides miners, this group was perhaps the highest risk occupation for asbestos disease.

Once government doctors learned in 1932 that warehouse employees who packed and shipped asbestos products faced serious asbestosis risks, Turner & Newall and several other companies convinced government representatives that regulatory updates to protect these workers weren’t necessary.

Military Knowledge of Asbestos Danger

All branches of the U.S. military used asbestos extensively from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, with the most hazardous conditions occurring in U.S. Navy ships and shipyards. As a result, veterans serving a wide range of military occupations are now at high-risk of developing cancer and other asbestos-related health complications.

US Navy Shipyard
We are not protecting the men as we should.
C.S. Stephenson
U.S. Navy Commander of Preventive Medicine

The U.S. government certainly had knowledge of asbestos dangers prior to World War II, when the Navy built and deployed thousands of new ships loaded with asbestos insulation. Asbestos health risks are mentioned in Navy correspondence and documents from government archives dating back to the late 1930s.

While there’s no denying the military could have done more to protect our veterans, no evidence shows the government contributed to the asbestos cover-up.

In litigation, attorneys representing asbestos companies have argued that strict military specifications required the use of asbestos, but documents from the 1940s and 1950s suggest the industry may have played a leading role in drafting these specifications. Although some Navy guidelines were written for asbestos insulation, most major specifications for pipe and block insulations listed performance requirements, but not specific materials.

Insulation manuals in the early 1970s first told military insulation workers to take precautions while handling asbestos. The Navy adopted new asbestos regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1974, and issued a ban on all new asbestos insulation materials the following year. It is likely, however, that harmful exposures occurred well after 1975, when the Navy began to phase asbestos materials out of its ships.

The End of the Cover-Up

In the 1960s, new developments in law and medicine exposed the questionable dealings of the asbestos industry and put an end to a cover-up that may have continued indefinitely. Dr. Irving Selikoff of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, with the help of two colleagues, definitively linked occupational asbestos exposure to cancer and other life-threatening conditions in 1962 and 1963. Finally, the asbestos industry could no longer hide or ignore the truth.

Asbestos Factory Shut Down

Beginning of Legal Action over Asbestos Exposure

Several years later, the American Law Foundation amended tort law to make the sellers of dangerous materials liable to legal action unless they placed adequate warning labels on their products. Not surprisingly, few companies added labels until the law required it. The first asbestos product lawsuit emerged in 1971, opening the door for the thousands of lawsuits that followed.

Asbestos warning label

Mesothelioma Linked to Asbestos

Scientists established a connection between asbestos and lung cancer in the 1930s. Around the same time, doctors were advancing their understanding of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lining of the lungs caused almost exclusively by asbestos.

Asbestos Mine

Legacy of Asbestos Continues

Although litigation brought massive payouts to asbestos workers — as well as punitive damages that drove more than 100 asbestos companies to bankruptcy by 2014 — families around the world still feel the effects of the asbestos industry’s conspiracy.

Asbestos Mine

Global Asbestos Use

Knowledge about the dangers of asbestos prompted more than 55 countries to ban or restrict asbestos use, but worldwide use of the toxic mineral continues. In 2013 alone, the world produced and consumed more than 2 million metric tons of asbestos, with the majority of it mined and used in Russia and China.

Worldwide Asbestos Maps

When Will Asbestos Exposure End?

Despite a clear medical link between asbestos exposure and various cancers, workers worldwide still handle heaps of raw asbestos by hand without protective equipment or guidelines for safe work practices. In coming years, researchers expect the number of asbestos-related cancer cases in the U.S. to peak, but developing nations that rely on cheap asbestos building materials will suffer easily-preventable health problems and deaths for decades to come. Unfortunately, asbestos cover-ups continue in many countries.


Joey Rosenberg is a researcher and content writer for The Mesothelioma Center. He is an alumnus of the University of Central Florida with a background in technical writing. Joey joined The Mesothelioma Center in 2011 to raise awareness and understanding of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. If you have a story idea for Joey, please email him at jrosenberg@asbestos.com.

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