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General Electric’s History with Asbestos
Thomson-Houston Electric Company merged with Edison General Electric and created General Electric in 1892. Thomas Edison sat on the board of directors until his departure in 1892.
General Electric grew into one of the world’s largest companies, with $25 billion in revenue by 1980. It sported a varied line of products, ranging from plastics to consumer electronics, jet engines to nuclear reactors.
General Electric acquired and divested many companies throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium. In 2011, for example, it sold 51% of its interest in NBC to cable giant Comcast.
As a manufacturer of electronics, light bulbs, electricity and power-generating equipment, General Electric used asbestos in a number of its products, including steam turbines, consumer electronics, appliances and plastic molding compounds used in electrical boxes.
Asbestos was used in the production of General Electric’s steam turbines that were installed in 22,000 sites across the United States. Exposure to the asbestos in these turbines primarily occurred between 1966 and 1986.
Many of its early consumer electronics, such as radios, produced a tremendous amount of heat and were insulated with asbestos panels. The company’s power production plants used insulation, cables, furnaces and wires that contained asbestos.
Saved by its vast size and diversity, General Electric never filed for bankruptcy protection or established a trust fund to address the more than 400,000 asbestos claims that have been brought against it. The company continues to handle claims through the court system.
Asbestos Litigation Involving General Electric
Many lawsuits against the company have been filed by plaintiffs claiming that asbestos exposure from the company’s steam turbines caused them to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Lawsuits have also involved the company’s other asbestos products.
- In 2019, General Electric settled out of court with plaintiff Lynda Berry, who claimed she developed mesothelioma through exposure to asbestos fibers her husband brought home from his job at a paper mill. Berry’s lawsuit went to trial and a Louisiana jury ordered the remaining defendants to pay her $2.25 million.
- Arthur Montgomery worked at the Port Everglades Power Plant wiring, installing and insulating General Electric turbines. Montgomery was exposed to asbestos dust during this process, which contaminated his clothing. Montgomery’s wife washed the clothing and was later diagnosed with mesothelioma, which took her life. The case was reviewed in 2011 when General Electric motioned for summary judgment. The court of Delaware denied this motion, which allows the lawsuit to continue.
- Howard Plumb used General Electric’s asbestos-containing electric cable in 1941 when he worked as an electrician’s helper. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma and filed a lawsuit against General Electric claiming its asbestos product caused him to develop cancer. A New York Supreme Court found General Electric responsible for $1,470,000 in damages.
In 2010, the judge overseeing Appalachian Insurance Co. v. General Electric Co. determined that General Electric would have to secure new insurance coverage with its insurers for the non-turbine asbestos lawsuits against it.
General Electric’s Asbestos Products
General Electric’s asbestos-containing products included:
- Asbestos-filled phenolic molding material
- Deltabeston cables
- Deltabeston wires
- Electrical arc chutes
- Steam turbines
- Wil-Son Patent-Flex infrared ovens
General Electric sold asbestos-containing wires and cables under the brand name Deltabeston. It also produced infrared ovens under the brand name Wil-Son Patent-Flex. Other asbestos-containing products made by the company bore the GE emblem.
General Electric’s Occupations at Risk
The following occupations were at risk of exposure to General Electric’s asbestos products:
- General Electric manufacturing plant workers
- Power plant workers
- Consumer appliance assemblers
- Electrical engineers
- Engine assemblers
- Construction workers
- Demolition workers
Government employees, including steel workers, shipyard workers and naval employees, were exposed to General Electric equipment manufactured to government specifications that required the use of asbestos. Workers who installed, repaired or worked around General Electric’s asbestos products were exposed to dangerous amounts of asbestos.
The company also used products manufactured by other asbestos companies, including asbestos insulation, in the production of energy. Employees who worked in a General Electric energy production plant, distribution plant or manufacturing facility that produced asbestos-containing products should monitor their health and seek cancer screenings on an annual basis.
According to a 2022 report by the European Commission, over 70,000 workers died in 2019 from past exposure to asbestos. Symptoms of mesothelioma can take decades to arise after exposure to asbestos, and treatment is much more effective when the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage.