Most of the state’s asbestos-related deaths occur in and around Milwaukee. The city’s paper manufacturing and metal works used asbestos in factory insulation. Other cities with high mesothelioma diagnoses include Kenosha, Waukesha, Madison and Green Bay. All are current or former sites of paper mills.
Consumers in Wisconsin got exposed to asbestos as early as the 1890s. That’s when Malleable Iron Range Company began manufacturing heating appliances. They produced 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. Buildings erected before the 1980s may still contain asbestos materials. Once the fibers become airborne, those nearby are at an elevated risk of developing serious health problems.
The Pabst’s Milwaukee Brewery exposed workers in the 1970s. In 2021, a Wisconsin jury awarded $26.45 million to the surviving family of Pabst’s pipefitter who died from mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Wisconsin’s Occupations at Risk
Workers in certain industries are at the highest risk of developing mesothelioma. Examples include metal works, vermiculite processing facilities and paper mills.
Workers at Koos and W.R. Grace came in contact with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore. Metalworks facilities such as Ladish used the mineral to insulate high-heat machinery.
The paper industry used asbestos to insulate machinery. It helped 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.
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.
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 used asbestos brakes. After employees developed chronic coughs and sore throats, workers reported asbestos exposure. They 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% 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. Employees were at high risk of exposure to asbestos.
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 inspected the site in 2000 and 2001 to ensure that it was safe and free of asbestos debris. Agency 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
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.