Pittsburgh Corning was founded in 1937 as a joint venture between two prominent glassmakers, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and Corning Glass Works. The company’s primary focus was the manufacture of glass blocks used in commercial, institutional, government and residential structures until 1947, when it began to manufacture FOAMGLAS cellular glass insulation, a product used primarily by the construction industry. It contained no asbestos.
In 1962, Pittsburgh Corning entered into a purchase agreement with UNARCO Industries, Inc., to buy the Unibestos product line, which contained such items as pipe insulation and insulation block. The products in this line were manufactured from Amosite asbestos imported from South Africa. The natural asbestos was partially broken down into fibers at the mines, and then shipped to UNARCO’s plants for further fiberizing and bonding with inorganic binders and fillers.
The purchase agreement between the two companies gave Pittsburg Corning all rights to the formula, manufacturing plants, customer lists and exclusive use of the name “Unibestos.” From 1962 to 1972, Pittsburgh Corning manufactured the product, first in a plant in Tyler, Texas, it acquired from UNARCO. In 1964, it expanded production operations to a plant in Port Alleghany, Pennsylvania.
From 1964 to 1971, Pittsburg Corning employed industrial hygiene engineering consultant Morton Corn to evaluate the conditions at both plants. Corn found that both plants posed significantly hazardous exposure to asbestos, and he recommended engineering control measures to lessen the risk. However, the majority of his recommendations were not put into effect.
In 1972, Pittsburgh Corning ceased production and distribution of the insulation and dismantled and buried the equipment from the Tyler plant.
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Litigation & Specific Lawsuits
In 1977, 447 former employees of the Tyler plant filed a class-action lawsuit, which later was settled out of court for $20 million.
Defendants in the suit included:
- Pittsburgh Corning paid $8.1 million toward the settlement
- UNARCO paid $1 million
- Cape Industries (the asbestos suppliers) paid $5.2 million
- U.S. government (a large purchaser of Unibestos) paid $5.7 million
During the trial, Dr. Richard Gaze, the chief scientist for Cape Industries, testified that he consulted with Pittsburg Corning in 1961, prior to the Unibestos purchase, about the manufacturing process and the necessary precautions that had to be implemented to protect plant employees from asbestos exposure. He also testified that he continued to consult with the company about safety procedures over the course of the next ten years.
David Simpson worked on a steam piping system using Pittsburgh-Corning’s Unibestos, a thermal insulation pipe containing amosite asbestos fibers. Doctors diagnosed Simpson with mesothelioma, which claimed his life in 1988. His wife Helen received a total of $2.3 million from Pittsburgh-Corning and other asbestos insulation manufacturers.
From 1955 to 1968, Robert Dunham worked for the Pittsburgh-Corning Corporation as a chemical operator, using insulation and asbestos-containing materials. Dunham developed lung cancer from asbestos exposure and passed away in 1997. His widow took his case to court in Texas, winning $19.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Industries & Occupations
Unibestos was used as pipe insulation in a number of different residential and commercial construction applications, including for use in nuclear reactor compartments on nuclear submarines. The insulation had to be removed and then reinstalled each time repairs were made on components that were covered with it. Handling the insulation this frequently would have caused a significant amount of asbestos fibers to become airborne and be inhaled.
Additional products in the Unibestos line included:
- Cements and finishes
- Metal mesh blankets to fit insulation
- Asbestos packing and gaskets
- Asbestos textiles
The asbestos was shipped from South Africa in gunny sacks that had no warnings about the dangers of asbestos exposure. Plant workers removed the raw asbestos from the sacks with their hands. Although the workers wore respirators, after an hour, the respirators became clogged with asbestos dust.
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Last Modified November 8, 2018
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