Wisconsin ranks high for asbestos-related diseases, with more than 60 deaths per year caused by mesothelioma. Most of the state’s asbestos-related deaths occur in and around Milwaukee because of the city’s history of paper manufacturing and metal works, industries which commonly used asbestos in factory insulation. Additional cities with a significant amount of mesothelioma diagnoses include Kenosha, Waukesha, Madison and Green Bay, all current or former sites of paper mills.
Consumers in Wisconsin were exposed to asbestos as early as the 1890s when Malleable Iron Range Company began manufacturing heating appliances, such as coal-wood burning furnaces and Monarch asbestos lined stoves. In the 1950s, Hankscraft Company sold baby bottle warmers lined with the mineral. Asbestos for industrial and consumer use continued in Wisconsin until the late 1970s, but buildings erected prior to the 1980s may still contain asbestos materials. Once these materials are disturbed and the fibers become airborne, those nearby are at an elevated risk of developing serious health problems.
In October 2021, a Wisconsin jury awarded $26.45 million to the surviving family of Gerald Lorbeicki, who died from mesothelioma following exposure to asbestos working at Pabst’s Milwaukee Brewery in the 1970s. Lorbeicki worked as a pipefitter, which brought him into close contact with asbestos-containing insulation and other materials. The verdict included $20 million in punitive damages.
Wisconsin’s Occupations at Risk
Wisconsin residents who worked in metal works, vermiculite processing facilities and paper mills are at highest risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis and lung cancer. Individuals who worked for companies such as Koos and W.R. Grace regularly came in contact with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore. Metalworks facilities such as Ladish heralded asbestos for its resilience and fire resistance, using the mineral to insulate high-heat machinery.
Similarly, Wisconsin’s historic paper industry used asbestos to insulate machinery and help in drying processes, exposing workers to asbestos as far back as the late 19th century. Several paper producers made a significant impact on the state’s job market and public health, with companies like Kimberly-Clark, Charmin and Georgia-Pacific leading the industry. By the 1940s, it was the state’s third largest industry, and today Wisconsin remains one of the largest paper producers in the country. The century-old success exposed workers and the public to dangerous levels of asbestos for decades.
Treatment Centers near Wisconsin
Doctors in Wisconsin
Job Sites with Known Asbestos Exposure
- Koos, Inc.
- Western Mineral Products
- W.R. Grace
- Foster-Forbes Glass Company
- Owens-Illinois, Inc.
- American Can Company
- Malleable Iron Range (Monarch)
- Ladish Company
Paper Products Manufacturers
- Badger Paper Mills, Inc.
- Fort Howard Paper Company
- International Paper
- Riverside Paper Corporation
- Fox River Paper Company
- Kimberly Clark
- Peavey Paper Mills, Inc.
- Scott Paper Company
- Filter Materials, Inc.
- W.L. Spencer Manufacturing Corporation
- R.J. Schwab and Sons
- Four Wheel Drive/Seagrave
- Jaeger Insulation
- J. B. Schauble Mill & Dam/Waubeka Mill & Dam
- Proctor and Gamble
- Zeigler and Johanning Grist and Sawmill
Four Wheel Drive/Seagrave
Four Wheel Drive manufactured trucks in Clintonville and commonly used asbestos, especially in the manufacture of brakes. After several employees developed chronic coughs and sore throats, workers expressed concern about asbestos exposure at the facility and called the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to conduct a safety inspection.
The subsequent inspection in 1987 found that airborne asbestos was within the legal limit in air samples. But when NIOSH officials tested shavings from brakes in the facility, they found the brakes contained 10 to 20 percent asbestos. The NIOSH officials noted that the same type of shavings tended to accumulate near machines. This meant the particulate could be carried throughout the plant, leaving workers at risk. Officials also observed that workers did not wear protective gear to prevent such asbestos exposure.
As a result of the inspection, NIOSH began enforcing safe asbestos practices in the facility. It required the brake area be isolated from the rest of the facility to prevent the spread of asbestos particles. It also required the area be cleaned regularly to help prevent exposure to asbestos.
Koos, Inc. processed asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in its Kenosha facility from 1960 to 1995, receiving the mineral from American Vermiculite and W.R. Grace. As in any vermiculite processing facility, employees were at high risk of being exposed to asbestos and developing asbestos-related illnesses. Asbestos-containing vermiculite also posed a danger to customers. Some vermiculite from Koos was used in fertilizer. Customers who bought vermiculite-containing fertilizer may have been exposed to asbestos while working with the product.
In 1995, Koos sold its facilities to IMC Vigoro. IMC sold the vermiculite processing equipment and instead used the buildings to package salt. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspected the site in 2000 and 2001 to ensure that it was safe and free of asbestos debris. EPA officials found no vermiculite or asbestos on site, and soil samples were free of contaminants. Based on these EPA inspections, the site was declared safe.
Ladish Company was a large metal manufacturer in Milwaukee. Its high-heat processes of casting and forging metal were nonstop, requiring as many as 200 furnaces to operate simultaneously. Furnaces and other equipment were insulated, often with asbestos materials. Heat-intensive processes continuously damaged the furnaces and surrounding insulation. As a result, masons and helpers continuously tore down and replaced the equipment. In doing so, they were exposed to concentrated amounts of asbestos dust.
Such asbestos exposure caused numerous concerns and health problems among Ladish masons and other employees. For example, Mason George Zielinski developed mesothelioma nearly 40 years after he stopped working for Ladish.
Ladish had a medical monitoring program in place for employees like Zielinski who were exposed to asbestos on the job. In 1984, however, NIOSH inspectors reviewed 11 medical records and determined the X-rays were not properly conducted. Of 11 chest X-rays, only six were readable. NIOSH concluded that the program was inadequate and would not help in detecting asbestos-related diseases.
In May 1999, Zielinski and his wife, Mary, filed an action against four asbestos suppliers and manufacturers: A.P. Green Industries, Inc., Power Holdings, Inc., Firebrick Engineers, Inc. and Milwaukee Chaplet & Manufacturing Co., Inc.
Zielinski died of mesothelioma the following month, and the court dismissed the lawsuit in June 2001. Mary and her daughter filed a second lawsuit naming four defendants, but the defendants moved for summary judgment and this case was dismissed as well. While Zielinski was granted an appeal from the dismissal of one defendant, Firebrick Engineers, Inc., the Wisconsin Court System website has no case updates.
Illegal Asbestos Removal
In 1999, three men were convicted of conspiring to break health and labor laws. Buddy Frazier, Chance Gaines and James Bragg recruited more than 20 men for an illegal asbestos removal project in Marshfield. About 12 of them were homeless men recruited from a Tennessee soup kitchen and transported to Wisconsin. The three conspirators admitted using false Social Security numbers to obtain asbestos certification for the untrained workers. The recruits then improperly removed 9,000 feet of asbestos insulation without wearing protective gear. In addition to violating the Clean Air Act, the improper abatement practices exposed the untrained workers to harmful asbestos.
The investigation was led by the EPA’s Criminal Investigations Division and the Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General, with help from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS). At sentencing, the government showed evidence that the three defendants provided fraudulent training certificates and Social Security numbers to DHFS.
Wisconsin law requires all asbestos workers to be trained in safe work practices and carry proof of such training. After pleading guilty to conspiracy, Frazier, Gaines and Bragg were sentenced to 30, 33 and 24 months in prison, respectively.
In 2018, Wisconsin court ordered the owner of a closed foundry to pay more than $500,000 in fines and medical expenses for exposing workers to asbestos. Supervisors at the Grede Holdings plant in Berlin, Wisconsin, ordered employees to remove asbestos insulation from the roof of an inactive industrial oven in January 2012. The company did not provide proper personal protective equipment or follow safety protocols to remove asbestos.