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The Hidden History of Asbestos

Every year, more than 100,000 people die from health complications stemming from asbestos exposure. The mineral, utilized for its fire resistance and tensile strength, played a vital role in the rapid industrialization and urban expansion of the 19th and 20th centuries. The companies that mined for asbestos became rich and powerful, but the people who worked with it on a daily basis suffered severe consequences. Pulmonary diseases like lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis have caused millions of deaths over the last century. Even the Ancient Greeks knew that the substance caused severe lung damage.

Yet, when medical researchers presented irrefutable proof of the danger of inhaling asbestos particles, they were mainly ignored. It took almost a century for health and safety regulators to begin heeding the warnings of modern experts. While dozens of countries have banned asbestos use, no such ban exists in America. What’s worse, developing nations have ignored the cautionary tales, incorporating asbestos into their own construction projects at an unprecedented pace. 

None of this could have ever happened if the asbestos industry didn’t do its best to hide the truth by funding faulty studies and paying off critics. Even today, companies attempt to dismiss proof that their products contain the dangerous material. So, just how did this massive industry fool so many people for so long? Let’s explore.

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Humans have been using asbestos for longer than Homo Sapiens have walked the earth. The long, thin, crystallized fibers can be found on any of the inhabited continents. The mineral takes six different forms, each one with a distinct coloring but a similar makeup. As such, uses for asbestos can be found in many pre-modern societies. Archaeologists have uncovered debris from 750,000 years ago that contains the hair-like fibers.

The ancient Egyptians incorporated asbestos into the textiles that they wrapped mummies in to inhibit decay. Around 2500 BC, inhabitants of Finland discovered its fire-resistant quality, putting the mineral in their clay pots. The Ancient Greeks used it for cremations to separate human ashes from those of the fire. 

Later on, asbestos was integrated into cooking utensils to ensure that they wouldn’t combust. Crusading military engineers wove it into projectiles so their trebuchets could launch flaming balls of fire on their enemies. By the 1700s, Europeans sewed it into paper and money to decrease flammability. 

This is all to say that asbestos has many uses, and humankind has been aware of them for thousands of years. With the industrial revolution, the use cases expanded even more. Manufacturers and scientists realized that the mineral could be used to powerful effect in construction, not only for its fire resistance but for making sturdy materials like cement. 

abestos pit industries
Asbestos pit.By Mario Hains, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Asbestos mines popped up throughout the world. While the men toiled away in these mines, women and children prepared the material for industrial use. The companies that controlled this process grew powerful. With so much construction in the industrialized world, demand never waned. It just increased. Around 1900, the world was extracting about 30,000 tons of asbestos each year. By 1910, that number climbed to over 100,000 tons. 

It seemed like every decade, new companies discovered new ways to use the magical substance. First, it was in skyscrapers, then roads, then cars, then warships.

By the 1940s, the US was the world’s primary consumer of asbestos, with the country using 60 percent of the world’s supply. Other industrialized nations followed suit, though. After World War Two, demand rose in Europe as the continent rebuilt. The US and USSR continued incorporating the mineral’s strong fibers into military structures like warships and plane engines. In the US, consumption peaked in 1973, with the country using 804,000 tons. Global use peaked in 1977, at almost 5 million tons. 25 countries mined asbestos, and more than 80 worked to process it into sellable products.

Still, the 70s marked the beginning of a steady decline in mining. Rumors that asbestos caused cancer had spread for more than a decade. In the scientific community, these were more than just rumors. Scientists in the US and Europe proved that exposure caused three severe pulmonary issues: lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. The latter of these conditions wasn’t identified until the 20th-century. As for mesothelioma, more than 80 percent of those diagnosed with the disease were exposed to asbestos. Life expectancy for these patients typically maxes out at 21 months. Most troubling was the claim that these conditions weren’t limited to mine workers. Exposure at any point could prove fatal.

The researchers who uncovered this grim situation believed they had dealt a lethal blow to the deadly industry, but that was not the case. Repercussions were limited and slow. In the early 90s, asbestos use was still over 4 million tons per year. The markets in Europe and America, though smaller than the 70s, were still churning. Bans rolled out at a glacial pace, with only 17 countries outlawing the substance by 2003. America never banned it. Even today, global use is at one-third of levels from the 70s.

So why is that? The answer is simple— the asbestos industry dug in. 

For decades before the damning research became mainstream, industry leaders toiled behind the scenes to ensure their business remained unscathed. They slandered the scientists who worked against them and muddied the waters by funding faulty pro-asbestos research papers. It turned out that, in doing so, they were tearing down more than 2,000 years of common knowledge.

In Ancient Greece, the geographer Strabo declared that workers who wove asbestos developed a “sickness of the lungs.” In Ancient Rome, they called it the “disease of slaves,” because they were the only people who ever worked with the mineral. Even then, workers fashioned some of the earliest respirators from goat bladders to stem the disease’s onslaught. It seems that asbestos’s dangers were self-evident even in ancient society.

Whether or not cultures remained wary of this hazard for the next 1800 years is unclear. But, in modern times, medical professionals and people in the industry knew of the risks. They just did nothing about it. 

In 1897, a doctor in Austria claimed that his patient’s lung issues directly resulted from his work in a mine. In England, factory safety experts published a report in 1898 that described the “widespread damage and injury of the lungs, due to the dusty surrounding of the asbestos mill.”

Eight years later, in London, a thirty-three-year-old Englishman died of pulmonary failure. The surgeon performing the autopsy cut open the dead man’s lung to find the white fibers within. Doctors in France and Italy blamed a new form of pulmonary fibrosis on conditions in mines. Across the Atlantic, studies showed that many of these workers were dying at much younger ages than expected. Insurance companies gouged prices for people working in the asbestos industry, often denying them coverage outright. So, the medical community knew, and the insurance industry knew. The supposition that the mining industry didn’t know is beyond naive. 

Interviews from this time show that many business owners, rather than lying to themselves about work safety, simply didn’t care. Perhaps the most significant perpetrator in this respect was Johns Manville. The American company manufactured asbestos-based products. They had a physician on the payroll who did his part to hide the truth. The doctor discovered via x-ray that seven Manville employees showed lung deterioration from exposure. He told the company’s president, “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.”

When a manager asked the company president, Lewis Brown, if he would let employees drop dead without warning them of their condition, Brown replied, “Yes. We save a lot of money that way.”

As the industry expanded, so did the pool of medical research subjects. In the 1920s, the first research paper on asbestosis was published. The report detailed the havoc that the mineral’s sharp dust wreaked on the lungs by scarring them so severely that they can hardly retain oxygen. Half of all workers with five to 10 years of exposure showed signs of asbestosis. Among those with at least 15 years of exposure, 87 percent suffered from pulmonary disease.

In the 30s and 40s, mine owners and asbestos-based manufacturers shifted their attitude from ignoring the science to burying it. A conglomerate of mining companies funded medical research, expecting it to demonstrate the mineral’s safety. When investigations revealed the correlation between asbestos and cancer, the businessmen torpedoed the study. Companies spent more money lobbying politicians on limiting regulation of their industry. They published falsified studies that threw earlier research into question. Things continued like this for several decades until, in the 1960s, the science became overwhelming.

JC Wagner, a British pathologist, became one of the leaders in proving that asbestos caused cancer. And yes, he proved causation, not just correlation. He did it despite overwhelming opposition from the industry and the states that benefited so much from the mineral. His research seemed so clear that governments were forced to respond. In the UK, safety standards improved dramatically. The US Environmental Protection Agency classified asbestos as a hazardous substance and created standards to limit exposure. While some European countries banned its use altogether, change was slower in the US. In a shocking turn of events, JC Wagner, the man who influenced improvements in safety standards, reversed course.

Wagner began appearing in US court cases, testifying as an expert witness that his earlier research was wrong. He asserted that only in extreme circumstances could asbestos cause lung disease. So, did Wagner simply realize that his investigations were faulty? Absolutely not. Court documents later revealed that Wagner was on the payroll of some of the biggest mining and insurance companies. Over the years, they paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to cast doubt on his own research.

This marked the final shift in strategy. Rather than try to hide the truth, the business leaders called it a conspiracy. In the end, all they did was delay the inevitable. The global companies that had employed millions of people had to cope with bans, regulations, and lawsuits. In America, a 1989 ruling severely limited legal uses of asbestos, driving the industry into the ground. The last mine in America closed in 2002, decades after many of their western counterparts. Still, the dangers have not been totally mitigated.

Remember, asbestos is a construction material. For almost a century, it was incorporated into most buildings. A 2011 report in the UK claimed that more than half of the country’s homes still held the deadly silicate within their walls. While the dangers are much lower than working in a mine, they are not nonexistent. The World Health Organization maintains a stance that there is no level of exposure to asbestos that is safe. Unfortunately, tearing those buildings down en masse isn’t an option. Demolishing structures that contain asbestos is a slow, difficult task. Traditional demolition techniques would spread dangerous particles through the air, causing more harm than if the buildings were left alone. As a result, the process is expensive and risky, and few companies are eager to take on the job.

In the worst-case scenario, natural disasters or terrorist attacks are compounded when the damaged structures contain asbestos. Victims have to deal with long-term health complications, and clean-up crews are forced to proceed slowly and carefully or suffer the same consequences.

Experts attribute 100,000 annual deaths worldwide to asbestos-related health issues. Millions of more people deal with pulmonary disease daily. In America, a class-action lawsuit forced companies involved in the cover-up to contribute 30 billion dollars to a compensation fund for mesothelioma patients. Other countries around the world have done their best to do similarly. Yet, even the largest payout matters little to someone with a year to live. Sadly, the story doesn’t end here.

In the 20th-century, it was the US and Western Europe expanding and building rapidly. Today, other nations are dealing with their own growing pains. Developing countries still use more than 2 million tons of asbestos each year. The majority is mined in five countries: Russia, China, India, Kazakhstan, and Brazil. China is also the largest importer, as their ambitious construction projects require huge amounts of the substance. Unsurprisingly, most of these countries aren’t taking the necessary precautions to protect their people. 

Less than a year ago, a study in Thailand showed that almost 49 percent of the population had asbestos fibers in their lungs. One of those tested was a two-year-old child. Public health officials worry that the nations listed before, particularly China, could suffer dramatic public health crises in the coming years as a result. In all likelihood, the death toll will continue to rise for decades to come.

This tragedy seems to demonstrate some of the darkest realities about humankind. Despite knowing of the dangers for literally thousands of years, the people in charge have continued to place workers at risk for the sake of development. 

So what do you think? Are the countries using asbestos today unaware of the danger? Do they think it’s a conspiracy? Or have they simply decided, like Johns Manville and the other companies, that taking the cautionary route would come at too great a cost? Is there any justification that asbestos’s fire-resistant quality makes it necessary regardless of health risks? 

Where else have you seen this story unfold, where humankind throws caution to the wind for the sake of progress, only to do more harm than good?

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