The current push by defendant industries to establish a national asbestos victims trust fund is driven in large part by the fact that courts consistently find asbestos companies guilty, not just of exposing their workers to a substance asbestos that could kill or severely injure them, but of doing this with full knowledge of the fatal consequences of their actions, and of actively concealing this truth from these same workers.
The 1966 comments of the Director of Purchasing for Bendix Corporation, now a part of Honeywell, capture the complete disregard of an industry for its workforce that is expressed over and over again in company documents spanning the past 60 years.
Proponents of asbestos tort reform argue that companies that "had nothing to do with" asbestos manufacturing are being dragged into court unfairly. The documents presented here, while just a smattering, illuminate the dimensions of what was clearly, and remains today, a sweeping deception of American workers across entire sectors of the economy.
It took more than just Johns Manville and W.R. Grace lying to their workers to produce the ten thousand Americans currently dying each year of asbestos diseases. It took similar behavior at Exxon, Dow (Union Carbide), DuPont, Bendix (now Honeywell), The Travelers, Metropolitan Life, Dresser Industries (now Halliburton), National Gypsum, Owens-Corning, General Electric, Ford, and General Motors, just to name a few. The list is a roll call of major American corporations. What they did to their workers, the public, and their communities, we can only hope will never be repeated.
Early knowledge that asbestos was deadly
Asbestos diseases have been known and documented for over 100 years. During an autopsy in 1900, Dr. H. Montague Murray, a physician in London's Charring Cross Hospital, discovered asbestos fibers in the lungs of a thirty-three-year old man who had worked fourteen years in an asbestos textile factory and died of severe pulmonary fibrosis, which the doctor linked to his occupation (Brodeur, pg. 11).
In 1924, the first clear case of death due to asbestosis was published in the British Medical Journal. Dr. W.E. Cooke, an English physician who gave the disease its name, reported the results of an autopsy on a thirty-three-year old woman who had worked in an asbestos textile factory for thirteen years. The publication led to years of intensive study of asbestosis in Britain, during which hundreds of asbestos-textile workers were examined. Doctors and scientists found that a quarter of the workers developed pulmonary fibrosis, the condition which Cooke dubbed asbestosis (Brodeur 1985, pg. 13).
In the United States, in 1917, Dr. Henry K. Pancoast, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, observed lung scarring in the X-rays of fifteen asbestos-factory workers. In 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published a report by an insurance statistician noting the unusually early deaths of asbestos workers and revealing that it had become common practice for insurers to deny coverage for workers because of the "assumed health-injurious conditions" in the asbestos industry (Hoffman 1918). In 1927, the first workmen's compensation disability claim for asbestosis was upheld by the Massachusetts Industrial Accident Board; and in 1930 the first U.S. case of asbestosis was reported in the journal Minnesota Medicine (Brodeur, pg. 14).
By the 1930s, asbestos manufacturers and their insurance companies knew that asbestos was killing workers at alarming rates. In 1934, Aetna insurance company published the Attorney's Textbook of Medicine, which devoted a full chapter to asbestos exposure, noting that asbestosis was "incurable and usually results in total permanent disability followed by death." (Bowker, pg. 18)
In October 1935, the Eastern Underwriter reported on the "alarming increase of asbestos cases" in the United States (Bowker, pg. 18). Beginning in 1931 and throughout the 1930s, the asbestos industry commissioned research to determine the toxicity of various fibrous silicates such as talc and tremolite when inhaled (Michelbacher 1942, pg. 490).
So severe were the hazards of asbestos that by the eve of World War II, asbestos manufacturing was in decline. The war, however, reversed the fortunes of the asbestos industry and launched an era of massive use of asbestos in ships that led to an explosion of asbestos products for the next three decades.
The resulting atrocity has been described and documented in detail by Paul Brodeur, in Outrageous Misconduct; Barry Castleman, in Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects; and more recently by Michael Bowker, in Fatal Deception, and Andrew Schneider, in An Air That Kills, with a particular focus on the W.R. Grace asbestos mine in Libby, Montana.
"So many embarrassing documents"
We present here a small selection of insurance and manufacturing company documents made public through litigation. These papers reveal a brazen disregard for the men and women who, by the 1960s, were dying by the thousands each year for these businesses, a history of abuse and deception that is unparalleled in American industrial history. In large measure, it is the written words of these company executives that have convinced juries across America that workers and their families deserve full compensation for their suffering.
Both insurers and manufacturers understand the power of these documents. As litigation by asbestos workers began to heat up in the 1980s, industry officials recognized the potential significance of the documents being extracted from the companies by the courts. A 1988 memo written by an asbestos litigation fund trustee lamented that: "there are so many embarrassing documents that people disagree as to which group of any ten documents is the worst." [Excerpt | Full document]
As the author notes, more documents were certain to become public during litigation, and the outlook for the companies was bleak:
Industry-wide knowledge of the hazards
During the 1950s and 60s, companies were fully aware of the potentially fatal consequences of working with asbestos, including its ability to cause cancer, yet millions of workers were exposed to asbestos on the job with virtually no health protections.
As early as WWII, ASARCO knew that asbestos permanently damaged the lungs leading to a progressive disease called asbestosis, which is sometimes fatal. "We knew very well then that inhalation of excessive asbestos dust over a period of time could cause asbestosis." [View document]
In a 1949 document, Exxon admitted that asbestos causes lung cancer, silicosis, fibrosis and erythema. This relatively early admission that asbestos causes lung cancer foretold literally hundreds of thousands of deaths from asbestos in subsequent decades, mortality that continues today in the United States at a rate of at least 5,000 deaths per year. In line with the policies of all asbestos users and manufacturers, this information was under the banner: "COMPANY CONFIDENTIAL: Not For Publication In Present Form." [View document]
National Gypsum was quite explicit about asbestos risks. In a 1958 memo, the company states:
But perhaps the most authoritative account of the dangers of asbestos can be found in a blistering 1964 report from a medical doctor hired by Philip Carey Manufacturing, in which the doctor describes in no uncertain terms to the company's legal department the health hazards of asbestos to the company's workers and customers. (The doctor was fired soon after the company received his report.)
Insurance companies try to dodge a bullet
By the 1970s, the insurance industry was deeply concerned about its financial vulnerability to asbestos claims. In 1980, the American Insurance Association predicted that there would be between 8,000 and 13,000 claims a year from asbestos-caused cancer from 1977 through 1995 [View document]. This estimate did not include anything but pure occupational exposure to asbestos, even though asbestos was used in several thousand consumer and industrial products at that time, and exposure to the general public was not only staggering in size, but also essentially uncontrolled.
Companies facing legal action were growing concerned about the implications of their extensive asbestos releases into the environment. The potential liability represented by environmental pollution with asbestos and the release of asbestos fibers in the home became a subject of grave financial concern within the industry.
Even worse, reductions of these exposures seemed futile:
In 1968, The Travelers Insurance Company concluded that they faced major financial exposure from deaths due to non-occupational asbestos exposure near asbestos manufacturing facilities. In particular, the company concluded that it had "no chance of winning" a case brought by a resident living near the Johns Manville plant in New Jersey, who died of mesothelioma in June 1967. This certainty of defeat was no doubt solidified when a Manville attorney informed the Travelers that:
A 1975 insurance industry memo summarized non-workplace exposure as a major risk facing the industry. Forty percent of housewives and 50 percent of blue-collar workers had identifiable asbestos fibers in their lungs at death. The author concluded that, "It is now found (that) the public in general is or has been exposed to asbestos products to a far greater degree than previously recognized." [Source: Insurance industry memo 10/09/75]
At the same time, the hazards of asbestos to family members were well known, and nothing was being done about it. Workers were taking home huge amounts of asbestos dust on their clothes, contaminating their homes and exposing their wives who regularly, and unsuspectingly, handled and washed the dust-laden garments.
A 1974 memo from Exxon declares:
On June 18, 1975, The Travelers Insurance Company's Catastrophe Products Committee laid out "facts" well known to the asbestos industry and its insurers at the time:
Asbestos was clearly a potential catastrophe in the making for the industry. An Insurance Company of North America (INA) memo from the time predicts at least $20 billion dollars in payouts for asbestos-caused cancers alone. This figure assumes just $10,000 per case, a relatively low figure for asbestos cancers, which are almost always fatal. It does not include any deaths from non-occupational exposure.
The goal of The Travelers' "Catastrophe Products Committee" was to study the potential for asbestos to wipe out the company's assets, and then, in the company's own words, "make the catastrophe reducible to a level which would not imperil the assets of The Travelers." [View document]
The question was how to do it. The decision, on the part of insurers, was to adopt the same strategy as producers: deny prior knowledge and admit no liability.
In 1977, the insurance industry's "discussion group on asbestosis" unanimously decided not to admit liability in asbestosis cases. The strategies considered by the insurance companies are also laid out in the minutes of the meeting, including the "possible use of governmental immunity as a defense" in an effort to place the blame on the government for not warning workers of the dangers of working with asbestos.
The cover up
"KEEP THIS INFORMATION MOST CONFIDENTIAL"
By the late 1940s, asbestos manufacturers, industries that used significant amounts of asbestos in their operations, and their insurance companies all acknowledged internally that asbestos caused lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. Rather than adopt safety standards, switch to safer products, or provide protections for workers, these companies went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the truth about asbestos from workers, the public and the press. In some cases company officials went so far as to monitor the health of workers while deliberately withholding the results of this monitoring from them. Typically, however, worker health was not actively monitored, but decisive information on the dangers of asbestos was held secret. In other cases, companies interfered with and even rewrote scientific study results, restricted key information on asbestos hazards to management while keeping it from workers, and deliberately failed to label, or altered labels on, products.
A 1949 Exxon document described above illustrates the point. The document lists the diseases from asbestos exposure as "Silicosis, Fiberosis, Erythema & Cancer of Lungs" under the banner "COMPANY CONFIDENTIAL: Not For Publication In Present Form." [View document]
Asbestos diseases are latent, taking decades to appear after initial exposure. This latency period allowed companies to use workers for decades, knowing they were being injured or perhaps even killed by their work, yet also knowing that the men and women on the job would have no early warning that they might die from the asbestos they were exposed to.
For companies like Exxon, DuPont, and Dow that were sufficiently removed from basic asbestos manufacturing, withholding this information was relatively simple workers would not ordinarily think of asbestos risks and concealing information was a very effective way to reduce compensation payouts.
As put in a memo from Johns-Manville's medical director to corporate headquarters:
By the early 1960s, the hazards of asbestos were well known within the management level of most companies that dealt with it. Workers and customers, in contrast, were generally kept in the dark or even lied to. A significant part of the asbestos industry, represented by the member companies of the Asbestos Textile Institute, described their management-only information strategy this way:
Even work histories on deceased employees were deemed top secret
In 1966, DuPont hoped a company doctor examining an "expired" worker's history of asbestos exposure would keep a lid on the information he was asked to produce for the company:
Keeping employees in the dark meant leaving no stone unturned, even if it meant putting pressure on outside physicians. In November, 1980, DuPont sent a letter to a doctor asking him to remove the word asbestos from a rubber stamp used to mark X-rays which show changes in lung tissue, perhaps due to asbestos exposures. DuPont requested that the language of the stamp, which read "could be due to previous exposure to asbestos or other irritant materials" be changed to "could be due to previous exposure to irritant materials."[View document]
For at least 50 years, from the 1930s through the 1980s the unswerving goal of asbestos users and makers was to keep from workers the undisputed fact that asbestos was a major threat to their health. An internal memo from a W.R. Grace executive summed up the strategy quite clearly:
Objective science was a big problem for the industry because it repeatedly showed how extraordinarily dangerous asbestos really was. In response, the industry manipulated results and eviscerated papers in largely successful efforts to bury or obscure results that might damage the bottom line. Some companies simply stopped conducting studies at all, knowing what the results would be and fearing that the public might find out.
A 1948 memo from a New York University professor of industrial medicine, himself a former Metropolitan Life Insurance Company employee, revealed that a report summarizing studies conducted by NYU College of Medicine scientists was revised prior to publication at the request of Metropolitan Life Insurance and other asbestos insurance companies in order to omit references to cancer:
In November 1948, a year after receiving promising results that their Kaylo asbestos product hadn't produced negative health effects in experiments on lab animals, Owens-Corning received a discouraging letter from the lab that had performed the tests. The lab's initial clean bill-of-health finding was premature, and in fact the animals had developed asbestosis as more time elapsed. In conclusion the lab wrote to the company:
Yet, decades later in 1970, intra-company correspondence shows that Owens-Corning was still reluctant to properly label the product to indicate health hazards from asbestos:
A March 30, 1977 memo from a W.R. Grace health and safety official advised against conducting further study of asbestos-diseased workers out of concern that the information would become public:
Keeping information from consumers
Companies with significant asbestos sales used extreme measures to keep their customers in the dark about the risks of using asbestos products. The intimidation tactics and reassuring messages used by these companies no doubt led to complacency about asbestos hazards on the part of consumers, contributing to the incidence of clearly avoidable asbestos diseases now emerging among the general public.
In a 1970 W.R. Grace memo regarding sales of its Mono-Kote fire-proofing spray product, which contained twelve percent asbestos, an employee urged:
According to a New York Times investigation of Grace's Monokote product, the company continued selling "re-formulated" Monokote until the late 1980s, labeling it "asbestos-free" despite its knowledge that the product still contained up to 1 percent asbestos. Grace management instructed employees that inquiring customers were to be told the product did not contain any asbestos. Due to Grace's "asbestos free" claim, workers using Monokote stopped wearing protective respirators, believing the reformulated product was safe [The New York Times, 7/9/01].
A 1972 Union Carbide memorandum instructed managers to handle inquiries from concerned customers aggressively:
A year later, Union Carbide management instructed its sales personnel that customers should be told "asbestos is not a carcinogen." [View document]
In 1973, Union Carbide's own medical department advised the company to stop belittling the dangers of asbestos exposure in marketing literature for asbestos products, noting several "misleading" and "half truth" statements in the company's literature. Company doctors referenced government studies indicating asbestos exposures "as short as one day" had produced lung disease, contrary to the company's assertion that "massive long term exposure to asbestos" was required to produce asbestos diseases. [View document]
Manipulating the media
As word began to trickle out to the mainstream media about the appalling hazards of asbestos, controlling information flow and manipulating the media became a top priority for the industry. In June 1973, at a meeting of the Asbestos Textile Institute, asbestos industry representatives predicted the deaths of tens of thousands of employees from asbestos disease, and then noted that "the good news" was that the public was still vastly unaware of the problem.
The meeting's guest speaker, an executive from the Asbestos Information Association, began his presentation by laying out the facts:
The presenter plainly stated that insulation workers "were and still are dying from asbestos disease at an appalling rate." [View document]
Figures were put forward about what the industry expected to happen to its workers:
Then came the "good news:"
Finally, the guest speaker laid out his thoughts about media coverage of asbestos issues:
Anticipating a government investigation into its widespread knowledge of the dangers of asbestos, the industry worried internally and began to ready its defenses. A 1981 Dow internal memo marked "CONFIDENTIAL" had the following note scrawled across the top by a worried executive: