History of Asbestos, Pt. 4: Asbestos from Its Prime to the Era of Regulation

Asbestos products at shipyard

As soon as asbestos became an industrial commodity in the late 19th century, the clock began ticking. Sooner or later, the public would find out just how deadly this carcinogenic substance really was.

The only question was how long it would take — and how many people would have to suffer needlessly before asbestos companies were no longer able to hide or deny a growing body of medical research proving the health hazards of asbestos.

From the early 1900s through the 1970s, the asbestos industry would find itself in a golden era, hailing asbestos as a “miracle mineral” due to its strength and natural resistance to fire, heat and electricity.

Asbestos products were in high demand in the United States and around the world. To protect their profits, companies went to great lengths to cover up research showing the deadly health risks of asbestos.

Get a free legal consultation now if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Compensation may be available.

A Golden Era Begins to Darken with Illness

During the first half of the 20th century, most new buildings, vehicles, naval ships and aircraft were made with asbestos products to capitalize on the mineral’s strength and fire resistance.

These asbestos products included:

  • Auto brakes
  • Cement
  • Floor tiles
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Textiles
  • Valves

Dating back to at least 1900, credible medical research had already established a risk around asbestos exposure. An English doctor uncovered a string of unusual deaths among textile workers who worked directly with asbestos.

Meanwhile, the Johns Manville company grew into one of the largest asbestos companies in the world. Based in Wisconsin, the manufacturer had mining and production operations throughout the United States.

In the 1920s, Johns Manville employees started claiming asbestos-related disabilities. In 1929, the first asbestos-related lawsuit was filed in New Jersey by an employee named Anna Pirskowski.

Unfortunately, in these early days of asbestos-related litigation, Pirkowski’s lawsuit proved unsuccessful.

In the United Kingdom, another major hub of the asbestos golden era, medical researchers published a report in 1930 that irrefutably linked the inhalation of asbestos fibers to novel pulmonary diseases, which would later become known as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

The report led to minor regulations for the asbestos industry in the U.K., but similar restrictions would not reach the U.S. for decades to come.

World War II and Asbestos in the U.S. Military

With the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. asbestos market grew to shocking heights while manufacturers continued to hide the truth.

By 1942, the United States was consuming roughly 60% of global asbestos production.

Companies sold countless asbestos-containing products to every branch of the U.S. military and exposed millions of soldiers to the deadly carcinogen, including:

The U.S. Navy, in particular, required strong asbestos fireproofing materials to insulate boilers, engines, pipes and other ship components.

As a result, shipyards all along the American coastlines would become a major source of asbestos contamination and exposure. It’s estimated roughly one-third of all mesothelioma patients are U.S. veterans or former shipyard workers.

If you or a loved one has mesothelioma as a result of service, we may be able to secure compensation from a military asbestos lawsuit for your family. These are filed against the companies that made the asbestos products — not the government or military.

Asbestos Use Peaks Despite Mounting Evidence of Its Dangers

After the war, asbestos production continued, even as more studies emerged revealing the devastating impact of asbestos on public health.

In 1949, asbestos was officially linked to occupational cancer by the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. Other medical publications followed suit, most notably the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952.

By the 1960s, the evidence was clear: Exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other pulmonary illnesses.

However, companies in the asbestos industry continued to do what they’d already been doing for decades:

  • Concealing the information from their workers and the public
  • Fighting regulation efforts in Congress
  • Misinforming people about the truth of asbestos’s carcinogenic nature
  • Providing inadequate protection to workers who handled asbestos-containing products

For these corporations, asbestos was abundant, cheap, easy to produce and simply far too profitable for them to seek safer alternatives — so they continued to lie and misinform.

The Johns Manville Company, for example, refused life insurers’ requests to hang warning signs that would inform workers about the dangers of breathing or ingesting asbestos fibers.

However, the company’s own internal research showed executives knew asbestos was carcinogenic as far back as the 1930s.

Test results showing asbestosis in a shocking 20% of workers were not shared with staff, and a policy of total secrecy gripped the company, even as more and more workers got sick.

Attempts to Regulate Asbestos Begin and Victims Seek Justice

In 1970, following the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), regulators were given the authority to limit asbestos use under the Clean Air Act. The following year saw the first successful personal injury claim related to asbestos exposure by a U.S. worker.

Asbestos consumption peaked in 1973 when U.S. companies imported 803,000 metric tons of asbestos. In response, the EPA began introducing ever tighter regulations on the industrial uses of the carcinogen.

At the same time, the public grew outraged. As Americans were dying from devastating asbestos-related diseases, the public also learned that companies had known about the harms of asbestos for decades.

The Johns Manville Company finally buckled under the weight of asbestos litigation, filing for bankruptcy in 1982 and setting aside $2.5 billion in an asbestos trust fund to pay people who were exposed to its asbestos products and later developed diseases.

An estimated $30 billion still remains in asbestos trusts for mesothelioma victims to this day. See if your family may qualify for compensation now.

U.S. Asbestos Ban Overturned

Following a 10-year study, the EPA moved to phase out virtually all uses of asbestos in 1989. But just two years later, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the EPA’s asbestos ban following corporate backlash.

The court ruling was a major blow to sick workers, their families and public health advocates, as it outlined legal avenues for asbestos importation and production that have led to its current prevalence.

In fact, sadly, asbestos can still be found in dozens of products in the United States. To this day, around 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.

Filing an asbestos claim can help families hold companies like Johns Manville accountable for their negligence while securing much-needed compensation for their care.

As a trusted national mesothelioma law firm, Simmons Hanly Conroy is dedicated to helping mesothelioma patients and their families get justice.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, contact us now to learn more about your legal options for free.

Learn More About the History of Asbestos

Read about the history of asbestos including its continued use in the present day in the rest of the series’ installments below:

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