If you watch television, which most folks do, you may have noticed ads about mesothelioma offering to file wrongful death claims for patients and families. However, do you understand the leading cause of mesothelioma?
In this article, we shall explore together the long and tragic story of society’s love affair with asbestos, those who are willing to watch others die for profit, and asbestos remains a public menace.
The Early Use of Asbestos
For thousands of years, humanity has used asbestos to make objects in dealing with very hot substances or fire itself. As far back as 4,500 years ago in East Finland humans used asbestos to strengthen pots and utensils for cooking. In Persia, the rich would expose asbestos cloth to fire at banquets to amaze their guests.
The Persians built up a myth around asbestos, making it in to be the fur of the “samandar” a mythical creature that lived in fire and died when exposed to water. This later created the belief that the salamander could tolerate fire.
The Romans were keen on using asbestos as well with Charlemagne (800-814 AD) reportingly using a tablecloth made from the substance. Even Marco Polo told a story where he placed “a good vein of cloth which we call of salamander which cannot be burnt if it is thrown into the fire…”
Archaeologists even believe that ancient peoples made shrouds for their dead of asbestos so that the ashes of their kings would be preserved. They didn’t want the ashes of their king mixing with that of the wood they had used to make their funeral pyres
Some cultures used asbestos to make wicks for lanterns that would not burn to light sacred places such as temples and shrines. Asbestos has even been used in ancient times to treat various skin diseases.
Of course, these ancient peoples could not have been aware of the danger they were in using asbestos to make everyday objects or to wear on their bodies.
The industrial revolution, an event that changed the world and made modern life possible, began in the 1700s in England and soon spread to the rest of the globe. It was during this time that industry began the large-scale use of asbestos.
The first companies to exploit and use asbestos were formed in England and Scotland, then was used in the manufacture of yarn in Germany. Then in 1871, a new organization was formed in Glasgow called the Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company, and shortly thereafter the Clydebank area was the center of the industry.
The most commonly used type of asbestos used in industry during the industrial revolution was crysotile, or white asbestos. Cryotile is a soft, fibrous silicate mineral and is distinct from other asbestos minerals. In the 1870s, industrial scale mining of crysotile began in the Thetford Hills in Quebec where large deposits of the mineral had been found.
After the building of the Quebec Central Railway, in 1876, the fifty-ton output of Canadian asbestos mines rose from ten to a thousand tons, with the Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Quebec being the largest mine in the world.
By 1858, the use of asbestos in manufacturing had spread to the United States and as time passed into the 19th century asbestos was used for many diverse uses including:
- Fire retardant coating
- Fireplace cement
- Acid resistant gaskets
- Pipe insulation
- Ceiling insulation
- Fireproof drywall
- Lawn furniture
- Drywall joint compound
The widespread use of asbestos in the house building industry has left a legacy of asbestos laden homes that can be dangerous to those living within them.
The Discovery of the Dangers of Asbestos
In the early 1900s, researchers began noticing many early deaths in asbestos mining towns. A study was conducted to see what was going on by H. Montague Murray at the Charing Cross Hospital located in London using a postmortem examination of a young man who had died from pulmonary fibrosis after working fourteen years in an asbestos textile factory. During the examination, Murray found asbestos fibers in the young man’s lungs.
In 1902, the Inspector of Factories in Britain included asbestos on his list of harmful industrial substances. The first diagnosis of asbestosis came in 1924 after Nellie Kershaw who was employed at Turner Brother Asbestos in Manchester, England for seven years became ill. She had been employed to spin raw asbestos fiber into yarn and died in 1924.
Ms. Kershaw’s death led to a formal inquest where pathologist William Edmund Cooke gave testimony about his examination of her lungs. He reported finding, along with scarring from healed tuberculosis, extensive fibrosis and “particles of mineral matter of various shapes, but the large majority have sharp angles.”
After comparing the particles found in Nellie Kershaw’s lungs to samples of asbestos dust he had acquired from S. A. Henry, who was employed as His Majesty’s Medical Inspector of Factories, Cooke stated that the fibers found her lungs had, “originated from asbestos and were, beyond a reasonable doubt, the primary cause of the fibrosis of the lungs and therefore of death.”
E.R.A. Merriweather, the inspector of factories in 1930, presented a paper to the English parliament describing the horrendous fact that asbestos was a death warrant to those who breathed it in.
The paper studied employees in the asbestos industry including 66% who had been employed for twenty years or more. He concluded that the use of asbestos lead to asbestosis and that breathing in the asbestos dust particles had caused the subjects to suffer from asbestosis which would lead to their early death.
Even knowing the dangers of the use of asbestos didn’t stop its widespread industrial use. Some regulations were passed to protect those who worked directly in the manufacture of the substance, but millions of other people using it to build homes, ships, piping, boilers steam engines and steam turbines before, during and after World War II remained ignorant of the danger they and their families were facing.
Some Countries Ban Asbestos
Chrysotile remained the number one type of asbestos material used worldwide, as 95% percent of all asbestos ever used has been this kind. By the end of the 1900s, millions of people were sick or had died leading to billions of dollars being paid as compensation.
In a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009, a panel of twenty-seven experts stated, “Epidemiological evidence has increasingly shown an association of all forms of asbestos … with an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.”
The World Health Organization says that 125 million people still encounter asbestos in the workplace, and the United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimates that 100,000 workers die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Thousands more perish from exposures outside the workplace.
In response to the evidence that asbestos is deadly, fifty-two countries have either totally or partially banned the use, export and import of asbestos beginning with Norway in 1984.
The Politics of a Killer
The director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health in Australia, Dr. James Leigh, gave this dire forecast for those who remain exposed to asbestos. He stated that a conservative estimate of the total deaths from asbestos-related cancers. He gave the horrendous statistic that 5-10 million people will die by the year 2030.
Yet, despite dire predictions and the extensive research showing a dramatic link between asbestos and deadly lung cancers, some of the most industrialized countries in the world, the United States, Russia and China have refused to ban asbestos and in fact, are increasing its use and export.
Of this seemingly negligent behavior by these countries, Jukka Takala director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work said, “It’s totally unethical. It’s almost criminal. Asbestos cannot be used safely. It is clearly a carcinogen. It kills people.”
Why then is asbestos still being used and exported from these countries? What is the motivation behind not banning asbestos? The answer, sadly, lies in how money is used to wield political power.
On May 14, 2015, the House Judiciary Committee voted 19-9 in favor of a bill denying asbestos compensation to victims of the substance. The bill, called the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions (FACT) Act, created invasive bureaucratic barriers for fair compensation, making seeking compensation extensive and exhausting. This in the face of the fact that 12,000 to 15,000 Americans claims being filed each year by people who had been harmed or killed due to exposure to asbestos.
After the bill was passed, an investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that since 2010, the nineteen members on the House Judiciary Committee had taken almost $3.3 million from dozens of asbestos interests. The main donors of the funds, however, were political action committees (PACs) known to have a significant interest in people not receiving compensation because the industries they represented were closely tied to the victims becoming ill.
Each member from the Judiciary Committee who voted against victims of asbestos had received an average of $173,267 from asbestos interests since 2010.
Follow the Money Trail to Lack of a Ban of Asbestos in the U.S.
However, the money trail goes much deeper and involves some of the largest entities in the United States and around the world.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded mainly by Koch Industries, is a right-wing organization that couples state lawmakers with corporations to form “business-friendly” legislation. In 2007, ALEC helped draft bills for the states of Arizona, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Texas to prevent victims and their families from receiving compensation for asbestos exposure.
Another industry group, Honeywell International, the manufacturer of chemicals, donated large sums of money to candidates running for office in the United States. Since 2010, Honeywell, through political action committee donations, has paid more than $1.1 billion in damages to families and victims of asbestos.
So, in response to these losses to their bottom line, in 2015, Honeywell’s PAC gave the nineteen judiciary committee members $245.342 dollars. These same committee members also received thousands of dollars from industries connected to the military such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Not only this but they also were paid thousands by the oil industry, including ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco. This is only a partial list of the industry giants using their money to sway legislation away from helping the American public and toward profits and cuts in losses in paying compensation to victims of asbestos.
Joining the melee to stop regulations from being imposed to force restitution to families affected by asbestos, the insurance industry paid more than $100,000 in combined contributions in lobbying Congress to pass the FACT Act and other legislature that would limit liability payments.
Donald Trump and Asbestos
The industries that are involved in the construction of homes and large buildings such as high rises in cities also has a vested interest in keeping asbestos legal in the United States.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1973, banned the use of asbestos products that were spray-applied as fireproofing and insulation via the Clean Air Act. This was followed in 1976 by the Toxic Substance Act banning the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution of asbestos-containing products such as:
- Corrugated paper
- Flooring felt
- Commercial paper
- Specialty paper
- The formation of new uses that began after August 1989
Donald Trump, in 1997 long before he became President of the United States, published a book titled The Art of the Comeback, and in it, he made some startling comments on the regulation of asbestos. Mr. Trump wrote that the association with asbestos and health problems was led by the mob to form a conspiracy against the use of the substance.
“I believe that the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal. Great pressure was put on politicians, and as usual, the politicians relented,” He also said in his book that the push for regulating the asbestos industry is meant to help “mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.”
In the transcript from the Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held on July 21, 2005, shows the reason Donald Trump doesn’t want regulations on asbestos.
During his testimony, Mr. Trump made some very strange claims, such as if the World Trade Center that was destroyed September 11, 2001, had been allowed to use asbestos in its construction it wouldn’t have melted. However, he also made evident that he and other people in the business of building structures in New York City abhorred the regulations on asbestos.
In his testimony, Donald Trump complained about the high cost of renovating existing structures because they needed asbestos abatement. The need for proper disposal of asbestos cost him not the funds to remove the asbestos, but also in the relocation of residents of the buildings while the abatement was being done.
The Trump Administration and Asbestos
It should come as no surprise that once he became president, Donald Trump began to dismantle regulations on asbestos.
One of the first moves by President Trump was to appoint Scott Pruitt as head of the environmental protection agency. Pruitt later announced that his agency was actions to dismantle some of the regulations surrounding asbestos beginning with evaluating and requiring approval for new uses of asbestos but would not evaluate the health risks of asbestos already in the environment.
“These actions provide the American people with transparency and an opportunity to comment on how EPA plans to evaluate the ten chemicals undergoing risk evaluation, select studies, and use the best available science to ensure chemicals in the marketplace are safe. At the same time, we are moving forward to take important, unprecedented action on asbestos.”
In a second announcement, Scott Pruitt proposed a rule to address the “significant new uses [SNUR]” of asbestos including reinforced plastics, roofing felt, stucco, masonry paints, floor tiles and millboard. Pruitt has giving industry the green light to continue the use of products known to cause cancer. Such a move puts millions of people such as school students, teachers, and janitors at risk as they walk on and clean asbestos flooring tiles and people who repair boilers and walls done with asbestos-containing stucco.
Pruitt’s EPA decided to choose a very narrow definition of “conditions of use” including the raw bulk chrysotile asbestos that is imported and used in products like brake blocks for oil drilling and automotive brakes, gaskets and cement products
As you recall from earlier in this article, chrysotile asbestos is a known carcinogen.
Even after Pruitt was removed from office, his successor Andrew Wheeler, continues to push for the deregulation of asbestos.
In a queer twist, a manufacturer of asbestos products in Russia seems to believe that President Trump and his administration are helping them make money. The manufacturer is called Uralasbest, and they posted on Twitter that, “Donald is on our side! … He supported the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who stated that his agency would no longer deal with negative effects potentially derived from products containing asbestos”
Uralasbest even went so far as to print a picture of President Donald Trump’s face onto their product wrapping.
Since early times, mankind has used asbestos to make products that will not burn. However, beginning in the early twentieth century, physicians have grown first increasingly concerned and convinced that asbestos is a killer.
After the deadly effects of asbestos fibers were established as fact, fifty-two countries banned its use, manufacture, import and export.
Despite the proof that asbestos has and will continue to kill millions, lobbyists in the United States congress fight for the continued use of asbestos and fight against regulating it. Their reasoning? The profit line of the organizations they engender take a hit from paying for the safe removal of asbestos and some corporations want to keep using it in their products.
Unfortunately, money talks and the environmental protection agency has begun to roll back rules and regulations that keep people safe. It isn’t only the people who live in the U.S. who are at risk from this pressure, but people in developing countries such as India, also face the horrible consequences of the greedy use of asbestos to make a bigger profit margin.
To protect yourself and your family, remain aware of the substances you contact at work and play. Ask questions to see if anything you are working with or on may contain asbestos. If you discover there is even a chance that the material may contain absestos, I would highly suggest you find another job.
Your health and that of your family is at risk.
Bottom line, until humanity bases its concept of profit on the care and value of all humans, we will continue to die unnecessarily from substances such as asbestos.
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