The asbestos industry has been compared to the tobacco industry in the way it promoted known deadly products by calling into question scientific findings and blocking public health initiatives opposed to them. Asbestos companies and tobacco companies are also linked by the fact that after years of deceiving the public in order to make huge profits, people got wise to them and began using the legal system to hold these unscrupulous manufactures responsible.
Asbestos claims 12,000 to 15,000 lives per year in the U.S., including approximately 3,000 per year due to mesothelioma. Some of this damage is compounded by medical errors, which could greatly affect you.
It may come as a shock to learn that asbestos is still not banned in the United States despite overwhelming evidence of its dangers. While some types of products have been outlawed, large amounts of raw asbestos and asbestos products are still imported annually. Legislation that would have banned asbestos entirely was blocked by the asbestos industry, and these same corporate interests continue to fight against regulations today. Money that could compensate victims for the injuries they suffered is going into the pockets of the asbestos companies.
Asbestos, a type of naturally occurring mineral fiber, is a useful material because it is fire-resistant, a good insulator, and can be incorporated into other materials as a binder and strengthening agent. Indeed, asbestos was once considered a “miracle fiber” due to its seemingly inexhaustible list of uses, from building materials to textiles to personal care products.
Importantly, asbestos is also cheap. Alternatives were available to manufacturers, but they cost more, and using them would have increased production costs. The need for cheap materials still drives the asbestos trade in countries such as Brazil, China, and India, and for years, it drove the U.S. asbestos trade.
In the United States, asbestos has been used since the 1800s, initially in steam engines and later in thousands of products. Although popular with the military and private industry by the 1930s, asbestos use really took off during World War II, a period when hundreds of pounds of asbestos were imported daily and the mineral fiber was used in virtually every ship the U.S. Navy commissioned, as well as jeeps and other vehicles, military barracks and buildings, and much more. The military’s widespread use of the mineral explains why veterans account for nearly 1 out 3 mesothelioma deaths.
By the 1970s, asbestos usage had peaked and federal bans on asbestos took many products out of circulation. Yet even though many uses of the substance and its products are no longer permitted, the 20- to 50-year latency period of asbestos disease means that many people exposed to it decades ago are only now getting sick. It also means that many older buildings and products still contain asbestos and present an ongoing exposure risk.
The U.S. epidemic of asbestos disease could have been prevented had asbestos companies been forthcoming about its health hazards. Evidence emerged as early as the 1920s that the mineral was sickening and killing workers, and internal documents from the 1940s show that the asbestos industry knew its products were deadly. It did not act on this knowledge to protect workers, however, ensuring that future generations would continue to fall ill from the substance.