If you have any knowledge of the asbestos industry and the dangers posed by the toxic mineral, you may know that executives have been covering up those dangers for more than a century. Way back in 1900, a doctor in London made the first statement about the risks of working with asbestos when he found asbestos fibers in the lungs of a young textile factory worker who died at age 33 from pulmonary fibrosis – or more likely, asbestosis or mesothelioma (though those terms weren’t yet in use).
After the First World War, U.S. medical professionals were becoming attuned to similar cases. In 1918, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted an unusual number of early deaths among those who worked in industries that used asbestos. By 1930, the disease most associated with asbestos exposure was finally given a name – asbestosis.
A similar story continues over the years, with internal memos circulating through the higher-ups in companies where asbestos use was quite obviously taking a toll on employees.
“Just as certain as death and taxes . . . if you inhale asbestos dust you get asbestosis,” said an inter-office memo floating around at National Gypsum in the 1950s.
“My answer to the [asbestos] problem is: if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it,” wrote an executive from Bendix Corporation (now Honeywell) to a colleague at the Canadian office of Johns Manville in 1966. (Johns Manville was later barraged with asbestos-related lawsuits.)
“The investigation is going to be handled as discreetly as possible. It is a concern of the meeting attendees that a labor violation such as a walkout or an OSHA citation would be forthcoming if the hourly labor force was aware of the apparent danger of asbestos exposure. . . . As the situation stands right now no one in the meeting wants the warning signs posted at this time,” wrote an official at Babcock and Wilcox in 1978.
That company, which designs, engineers and manufactures boilers and other power generation equipment, was acknowledging that they were aware of the fact that they were knowingly violating OSHA standards set to limit worker exposure to asbestos fibers.
Today, much of the same nonsense continues, particularly concerning asbestos-contaminated talc. Recently, several large settlements have been awarded to women who developed ovarian cancer after using tainted talc each day for years as part of their personal care routine.
Yet, back in the 1970s, the Engelhard Company, later a subsidiary of BASF, conducted tests on samples of its talc and determined that many contained asbestos. Yet they kept this information a secret until 1983, when it was finally revealed in a deposition, brought about as the result of a lawsuit filed by the family of a mesothelioma-stricken employee, that a cover-up was demanded by company leaders.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, on Jan. 28, 1983, Glenn Hemstock, who was at that time Engelhard’s vice president of research and development, acknowledged for the first time under oath that the company was aware that the talc it mined and used in its products was contaminated with dangerous asbestos. It was a statement that shocked workers but perhaps not the industry in general.
After the case was settled and the family of the deceased worker signed a non-disclosure agreement, executives gathered up all the inter-company communication on its talc and its asbestos content and hid them, according to testimony in later cases.
Both company executives and attorneys were responsible for the cover-up, it was eventually proven. But they continued to bury evidence of the problem and were even making statements under oath as to how Engelhard’s talc, mined in Vermont, was and had always been asbestos-free.
A sworn affidavit stating the above was given in 1989 by expert witness, William Ashton, and was used for decades in lawsuits against the company as evidence that their talc did not present any danger to employees or users of products containing that talc. It was an outright lie.
Finally, this year, a class action lawsuit was filed against BASF and their former law firm, alleging that they conspired to cover up evidence that the talc they mined and used in products contained toxic asbestos. The two defendants tried to have the case dismissed this past April, but the judge refused the request.
Instead, he said that the defendants “had a duty to preserve evidence when it was relevant in a prior lawsuit, and where it was reasonably foreseeable that the evidence would be relevant to anticipated lawsuits of nearly identical subject matter and similarly situated adversaries.”
Each year, some 3,000 people in the United States still die of asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer and others succumb to complications associated with asbestosis. Consider the lives that may have been spared had the abundance of previously-mentioned interoffice memos been shared with those who could have put a stop to asbestos use.
Instead, the disease – which has a latency period of up to 50 years – continues to strike down even the most vital of individuals, men and women who worked hard to support their families and give them the proverbial American Dream. Yet, their dreams of a healthy and happy retirement and vibrant “golden years” have now disappeared.
Now the country will watch as more talc-related suits unfold, particularly against companies such as pharmaceutical and personal care giant Johnson & Johnson, whose asbestos related talc controversy may be responsible for countless cases of ovarian cancer.
Just recently, that company was ordered to pay $55 million to a woman who used their Johnson’s Baby Powder ™ and Shower-to-Shower ™ products for decades and developed ovarian cancer as a result.
“Internal documents from J & J show it knew of studies connecting talc use and ovarian cancer but, to this day, it continues to market it as safe — neglecting any warning,” said the plaintiff’s lawyer. Yet J&J officials continue to maintain that talc is safe for use.
Supposedly, talc products have been “asbestos-free” since the late 1970s, when the U.S. Government issued guidelines for asbestos use. It seems, however, that this is unlikely. As many have discovered, the cover-up continues and it will be difficult to predict – as lawsuits emerge – just how many more victims will succumb to the lies of the asbestos and talc industries. Only time will tell.