Asbestos: Think Again: Industry hid dangers for decades
SOMETHING IN THE AIR: The asbestos document story
Nothing proves the culpability of the asbestos manufacturers in the death and injury of asbestos workers quite like internal documents from the companies themselves. These papers, just a handful of which we present here, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the companies and their insurers knew the hazards of asbestos and concealed this information from workers for decades. More than any other piece of evidence, it is the companies' own internal papers that have convinced juries of citizens across the country that workers and their families deserve compensation to help them manage the severe and often fatal health consequences of working with asbestos.
Browse a selection of asbestos industry documents dating from 1948 through 1988.
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.
"...if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it."
— 1966 Bendix Corporation letter [view document]
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).
W.R. Grace Company Indicted on Federal Criminal Charges
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:
"The documents noted above, however, show corporate knowledge of the dangers associated with exposure to asbestos dating back to 1934. In addition, the plaintiffs' bar will probably take the position — not unreasonably — that the documents are evidence of a corporate conspiracy to prevent asbestos workers from learning that their exposure to asbestos could kill them. (One employee of Manville, who co-authored a 30-year-old document which is among the group of documents described above, was told by Manville's Chief of Litigation to hire his own lawyer after the document came to light because it was the opinion of the Chief of Litigation that the employee could be indicted for manslaughter.)"
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:
"We know that you will never lose sight of the fact that perhaps the greatest hazard in your plant is with men handling asbestos. Because just as certain as death and taxes is the fact that if you inhale asbestos dust you get asbestosis."
— 1958 National Gypsum Memo [View document]
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.)
"There is an irrefutable association between asbestos and cancer. This association has been established for cancer of the lung and for mesothelioma. There is suggestive evidence... for cancer of the stomach, colon and rectum also. There is substantial evidence that cancer and mesothelioma have developed in environmentally exposed groups, i.e., due to air pollution for groups living near asbestos plants and mines. Evidence has been established for cancer developing among members of the household. Mesotheliomas have developed among wives, laundering the work clothes of asbestos workers. Substantial evidence has been presented that slight and intermittent exposures may be sufficient to produce lung cancer and mesothelioma. There should be no delusion that the problem will disappear or that the consumer or working population will not become aware of the problem and the compensation and legal liability involved." (Bowker, pg. 171)
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.
"Control of asbestos in the community air is impossible when you consider the contribution from brake linings, abrasion of piping, house siding or other materials widely handled by the general public."
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.
"Asbestosis, lung or colon cancer claims whether comp or liability, from asbestos workers or those working with asbestos materials, are one thing, but the general public exposure and claim potential is much more serious."
Even worse, reductions of these exposures seemed futile:
"If indeed there is at least a causal relationship of asbestos to the cited diseases, which there appears there is, then a most serious loss potential to the Travelers exists. Even with the engineering controls we have available, the exposure will continue and the long development period of the disease suggests past exposures will continue to haunt us.
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:
"Confidentially Johns-Manville has been contaminating the 'Hell' out of both the air and the water for quite some time."
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:
"Not only are we violating the existing regulations concerning clothing by not providing such clothing and laundering it, but we are also failing to protect our employees and the families of our employees from asbestos exposure."
— 1974 Exxon memo [View document]
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:
"1) Asbestos causes cancer. Once asbestos fibers are ingested by a person, in no matter how small a quantity, they remain in the body and can be the cause of cancer 10 or 20 years later. There is no known way of removing the fibers from the body.
2) Asbestos is used in a wide variety of products: insulation, roofing, chemicals, wallboard, piping, etc."
— 1975 The Travelers Insurance Co. memo [View document]
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 attached article is an estimate of the possible numbers (plaintiffs) of Asbestos workers who will die from cancer in the next half century.
This figure does not take into consideration "other" possible cancer victims of Asbestosis such as wives of workers, persons living near asbestos factories, school children, etc."
"400,000 potential plaintiffs could generate 2,000,000 files (5 INA insureds per plaintiff).
INA's possible exposure: 2,000,000 x $10,000.00 = 20 Billion dollars"
— Undated INA memo [View document]
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 meeting closed with a unanimous rejection of a suggestion that liability in asbestosis cases be admitted..."
— 1977 "discussion group on asbestosis" memo [View document]
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:
"The fibrosis of this disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But, as long as the man is not disabled it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and the company can benefit by his many years of experience." (Brodeur, pg. 102)
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:
"...this subject should not be brought to the attention of other than management of our several companies, as any general discussion on this situation by sales personnel with users of our products, could possibly aggravate the situation and result in individual opinions which could be damaging."
[Source: Asbestos Textile Institute memo 11/6/64]
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:
"We have on record that [blacked out name] a 36 year old employee of your plant expired sometime in 1964 from mesothelioma of the pleura.
Please do a careful investigation and let me know if this individual was ever exposed to asbestos in our employ, how long he was, in what type of work, or any other information that may be available. If at all possible, try to ascertain whether there is any information that this individual worked as a roofer, pipe coverer or any other type of asbestos exposure prior to joining Du Pont. This inquiry is for our own edification only, as no one outside of the Company has raised the question.
We are hopeful you will keep this information most confidential, and let me have your reply as soon as possible. Thank you for your cooperation."
— 1966 DuPont internal memo [View document]
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:
"The point I am trying to get across is that our present policy is to tell no one anything, no visitors, or discussion of our operations, period."
— 1972 W.R. Grace internal memo [View document]
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:
"A meeting of the representatives of the underwriting companies was held in New York... It was the feeling of this group that all references to cancer or tumors should be omitted... It was decided that after these revisions have been concluded the report of these experimental studies should be published as promptly as possible, preferably in the Journal of Industrial Hygiene. Any report on human asbestosis should be separate and not a part of this report."
— 1948 NYU College of Medicine memo [View document]
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:
"I realize that our findings regarding Kaylo are less favorable than anticipated. However, since Kaylo is capable of producing asbestosis, it is better to discover it now in animals rather than later in industrial workers. Thus the company, being forewarned, will be in a better position to institute adequate control measures for safe-guarding exposed employees and protecting its own interests."
— 1948 Owens-Corning memo [View document]
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:
"...regarding the warning label that should appear on Kaylo. Are you saying that we have to do this now? I naturally would like to delay this requirement as long as possible."
— 1970 Owens-Corning memo [View document]
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:
"I believe that the results of a study of this nature would become public knowledge within a relatively short period of time regardless of confidentiality agreements. If we are not prepared to deal with that situation, I would advise against proceeding."
— 1977 W.R. Grace memo [View document]
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:
"Stay unscrupulous, unethical, mean and selling Mono-Kote."
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:
"If the customer is persistent and threatens to eliminate asbestos — a certain amount of aggressiveness may be effective. Words and catch phrases such as "premature", "irrational" or "avoiding the inevitable" will sometimes turn the table. The main objective is to keep the customer on the defensive, make him justify his position."
— 1972 Union Carbide memo [View document]
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:
"First, there is no doubt that the inhalation of substantial amounts of asbestos can lead to increased rates of various types of lung disease, including two forms of cancer. These are facts which cannot be denied, even if they do not apply in all circumstances and under all conditions. The medical literature is full of solid evidence linking asbestos to disease. In my office, I have on file more than 2,000 medical papers dealing with the health risks of asbestos and hundreds more are published every year."
— 1973 Asbestos Textile Institute memo
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:
"Our prediction is that approximately 25,000 past and present employees in the asbestos industry have died or will eventually die of asbestos-related disease."
Then came the "good news:"
"And the good news is that despite all the negative articles on asbestos-health that have appeared in the press over the past half-dozen years, very few people have been paying attention."
Finally, the guest speaker laid out his thoughts about media coverage of asbestos issues:
"The press relations battle will therefore be won, not when the media starts to print positive or balanced articles about asbestos, but when the press ceases to print anything about asbestos at all. As long as negative news on asbestos-health continues to be generated, the media will continue to eat it up. The media will only cease to carry such stories when the generation of negative news ceases. It is as simple as that. Positive or balanced stories are a chimera, since they are, by definition, not newsworthy."
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:
"We are in trouble and would be more so if we had an investigation. We need a crash program."
— 1981 Dow confidential memo [View Document]
- Bowker, Michael. (2003). Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos Is Killing America. Touchstone Books, New York.
- Brodeur, Paul. (1985). Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry On Trial, Pantheon Books, New York.
- Hoffman, F. (1918). "Mortality from Respiratory Diseases in Dust Trades." U.S. Department of Labor Bulletin 231, pg. 178.
- The New York Times. (7/9/01). "PROTECTING THE PRODUCT: A special report; Company's Silence Countered Safety Fears About Asbestos" By Michael Moss and Adrianne Appel.
- Michelbacher, G.F. (1942). Casualty Insurance Principles. McGraw-Hill Books, New York.