Even with cries to ban the mining and production of asbestos resounding across the world, the industry continues to thrive. Concerns about the diseases caused by asbestos exposure prompted more than 50 nations — including the entire European Union — to ban or severely restrict asbestos use. Strict U.S. regulations took hold in the 1970s. Yet countries like Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan still mine and sell massive quantities of the toxic mineral on a global scale.
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At the heart of this disparity is the industry’s notion that corporate profits outweigh good health and the value of life. Since the late 1800s, American companies like the Johns Manville Corporation amassed great wealth by mining, manufacturing and selling asbestos-containing products. Centuries later, medical evidence revealed Johns Manville and numerous other companies not only knew about the potentially deadly effects of exposure but also went to great lengths to conceal the information from workers and consumers.
In decades past, asbestos use was far more pervasive in the United States. Contaminated materials were prevalent in industries like shipbuilding, construction, power generation and heavy manufacturing. Since an initial wave of personal injury claims emerged in the 1970s, asbestos liabilities drove hundreds of companies to bankruptcy. In many cases, companies overwhelmed by these claims establish mesothelioma and asbestos trust funds to cover the costs of current and future lawsuits.
While medical evidence indicates that even brief exposure to asbestos can cause life-threatening respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, the consumption of contaminated products in the United States and many other countries continues. According to a 2011 inventory of more than 60,000 asbestos-laden products, approximately 600 companies and suppliers operated worldwide that year.
Fast Fact: In 1963, Crown Cork & Seal acquired Mundet Cork, inheriting more than $700 million current and future asbestos liabilities.
Although asbestos mining existed for thousands of years, it was only during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s that the industry flourished. A natural resistance to heat, chemicals and electricity made the fiber desirable for innumerable industrial applications. Soon enough, manufacturers incorporated asbestos insulation into steam engines, piping and locomotives. Thousands of other uses later emerged, and manufacturers began putting it in products like boilers, gaskets, cement, roofing materials and automotive brake pads.
By the early 20th century, some companies realized that their primary source of income was severely injuring employees and consumers. But rather than making efforts to improve workplace safety standards, some companies chose to ignore or bury information that would undoubtedly damage their business and reputation. Internal documents indicate that Johns Manville executives were aware of the risks as early as 1934. The company conducted private medical studies around this time, and the negative results remained confidential for decades.
Asbestos use increased throughout World War II, largely because of military shipbuilding contracts. The U.S. government required asbestos insulation be used in U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels. For several decades after the war, hundreds of companies grew and prospered by incorporating asbestos materials into thousands of industrial and household products.
By the 1960s, scientists had gathered ample evidence of asbestos's harmful effects. One landmark occupational study conducted by Dr. Irving Selikoff in 1964 showed a clear link between the mineral and various cancers. Results indicated that between 1943 and 1962, an excessive number of insulation workers died of asbestosis and cancer, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, stomach cancer and colorectal cancer. Selikoff's findings were bolstered by medical evidence gathered in the wake of a subsequent decline in asbestos use. The result was a significant downturn for America's asbestos industry.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dealt another blow to the industry with the Clean Air Act of 1970. It established the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), which placed stringent restrictions on the use of asbestos and other harmful airborne contaminants. Several new regulations directly affected the industry, specifically companies that milled, sprayed or disposed of asbestos materials. By the late 1970s, many companies began phasing the mineral out of their products.
Although the U.S. Geological Survey asserts that U.S. asbestos use has fallen 99.9 percent since 1973, it is not yet banned in the United States. Limited amounts of chrysotile asbestos remain in brake pads and other friction materials, building materials like cement and in various textiles.
Fast Fact: A C & S stated it would no longer use materials made with friable asbestos in 1974, but bankruptcy documents revealed it may have been used for at least another decade.
During the peak era of asbestos consumption, it was incorporated into approximately 3,000 types of products. One of the most common commercial applications was within insulation products, a use that spanned industries including construction, shipbuilding and industrial manufacturing.
Countless other types of building materials were manufactured with asbestos, including ceiling tiles, joint compounds, cement, drywall and roofing materials. These products have a high potential to expose workers during building renovations and demolitions, as many related activities release toxic fibers into the air.
The toxic fibers have also been spun into various textile products such as rope, cloth and garments. Shipyard workers who installed tainted insulation often wore protective gloves and aprons that also contained the dangerous ingredient.
Another leading sector that continues to use asbestos materials is the automotive industry. Many car parts that withstand high temperatures and friction, such as gaskets and brake pads, contained some percentage of asbestos.
According to the World Health Organization, about 125 million people experience workplace exposure worldwide. By far, the most dangerous occupations involved mining and processing the mineral. These activities released massive amounts of toxic fibers into the air.
Another industry at high risk for exposure is that of construction. While drywall hangers and insulation workers faced constant exposure risks, many other professions in carpentry may have been exposed simply by working on the same project.
Shipyard workers, especially during the World War II era, experienced heavy exposure as well. Tainted insulation was once a staple aboard seafaring vessels, and cramped working conditions made its installation especially hazardous. Also at risk were pipefitters, boiler workers and electricians who serviced U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard ships.
A staggering number of related lawsuits surfaced over the past four decades, jeopardizing assets of any company associated with asbestos. According to one litigation report from 2002, an estimated 730,000 people filed related claims against at least 8,400 corporations.
Some mesothelioma lawsuits resulted in multimillion-dollar verdicts or out-of-court settlements. When courts find companies liable for a person’s injury or death, they must provide compensatory damages including pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost income and loss of consortium. Many times courts also demand additional punitive damages from companies for their wrongdoings.
In one standout 2005 case, U.S. Steel was ordered to pay $250 million to Roby Whittington, the wife of a former U.S. Steel employee who died of mesothelioma. Several other manufacturers defended the case, but U.S. Steel was found 100 percent liable for Whittington’s death. Georgia-Pacific settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and the jury awarded Mrs. Whittington $50 million in damages and $200 million in punitive damages.
A San Francisco jury awarded another landmark verdict to Alfred Todak, holding more than 25 firms liable for his mesothelioma diagnosis. A former electrician, Todak was exposed while servicing boilers aboard Navy vessels from 1960 to 1976. Eighteen firms settled with Todak out of court for a total of $4.2 million, and Foster Wheeler Ltd. contributed 30 percent of the jury’s $22.7 million verdict. Todak’s wife also received $11 million for related losses.
More recently, a 2011 lawsuit ended with a combined verdict of $22 million for two steamfitters exposed to asbestos gaskets. The gasket manufacturers, Goodyear Tire and Rubber and Goodyear Canada, were found partially liable for the lung cancer deaths of Walter Koczur and Eugene McCarthy, despite both being longtime smokers.
Fast Fact: Pittsburgh Corning announced in 2009 that it would pay out $825 million in cash over the next 15 years to cover asbestos-related claims.
With multibillion-dollar liabilities looming, many companies chose to file for bankruptcy to help defer the uncertain, yet steadily rising, costs of legal compensation. The U.S. government estimates that more than 100 companies filed for bankruptcy because of asbestos litigation, including industry giants like National Gypsum, Dana Corporation and EaglePicher Industries.
As part of their reorganization plans, companies often create personal injury trusts. Forming a trust prevents claimants from taking a company to court, designating the trust as the company’s only source for providing compensation. Bankrupt companies funnel their remaining assets into these trusts to fund current and future liabilities.
Since Johns Manville created the first trust in 1987, nearly every major asbestos manufacturer has declared bankruptcy and established a personal injury trust. By 2011, these trusts had awarded a total of $17.5 billion. Some of the largest trusts include:
|Company||Funding for Claims|
|USG Corp.||$4 billion|
|Pittsburgh Corning||$3.4 billion|
|Owens Corning Corp.||$3.4 billion|
|W.R. Grace & Co.||$3 billion|
|Johns Manville||$2.5 billion|
|DII Industries, LLC||$2.5 billion|
|Armstrong World Industries||$2.1 billion|
Western MacArthur Co.
Western Asbestos Co.
|Babcock & Wilcox||$1.8 billion|
|Owens Corning Fibreboard||$1.6 billion|
|Celotex Corp.||$1.2 billion|
|Combustion Engineering||$1.2 billion|
|Kaiser Aluminum||$1.2 billion|
Fast Fact: During its first 10 years, the Amatex Asbestos Disease Trust Fund is estimated to have paid over $11 million in settlements.
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