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The Asbestos Cover-Up



Regardless of the vast historical documentation that exposure to asbestos causes serious health conditions, the toxic mineral was heavily mined and processed into thousands of industrial and domestic products for many decades.  Beginning in the late-1800s, commercial asbestos mines started operations across the globe.  The booming Industrial Revolution fostered immense innovation in the application of asbestos, and the companies producing these products began to see increasing profits.  It didn’t take long for the asbestos business to develop into a major industry, complete with soaring profit margins, thousands of employees, and merciless CEOs.

Great Britain brought some of the first medical advancements in asbestos-induced illness with the discovery of asbestos fibers in an asbestos factory worker (1900) and the first documented death of asbestosis in 1909.  By 1917, American physicians began to observe similar abnormalities in chest x-rays of asbestos workers.  These physicians also noted asbestos mills were among the most hazardous industrial environments for dust of any industry.  The following year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published a report that noted the unusually early deaths of asbestos workers.  

In 1924, the prestigious British Medical Journal began publishing medical papers on asbestosis, which reported indisputable links between asbestos exposure, cancer, and death.  By the early-1930s, medical papers such as these began to appear in the United States, much to the dismay of the big asbestos industry.  In an attempt to fight back, asbestos companies began a campaign to suppress the truth about asbestos exposure.  Using power plays, closed-door deals, false evidence, bribery and more, the asbestos industry created one of the biggest cover-ups in U.S. history.

For example, in 1932, the chief of the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Occupational Health Clinic in Oklahoma attempted to release results that 29 percent of Johns Manville (one of the major asbestos companies) employees in contact with asbestos demonstrated x-ray evidence of asbestosis.  However, the release of this report was put to a halt by Johns Manville.  Over the years, memos and documents revealing the asbestos industry’s awareness of the dangers of their product emerged.  Case in point, a 1966 memo from the purchasing director of Bendix Corporation (another large asbestos company) addressed to Canadian Johns Manville states, “…if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it.”

Documents such as these abound and have been extensively used in asbestos litigation to prove the liability of the asbestos industry.  Most U.S. citizens are under the impression that asbestos use was banned in the late ’80s, but the EWG Action Fund reports more than 29 million pounds of asbestos was imported into the United States (for use in products) in 2001 alone. And although asbestos mining in the United States reportedly ended in 2002, scientific evidence contests otherwise.

Though two asbestos mines near Richmond, Virginia have been shut down for some time, another asbestos-contaminated mine lies nearby in Louisa, Va.  Just like the infamous asbestos-containing vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, this vermiculite mine is also home to the highly toxic mineral.  In 2000, the Mine Safety and Health Administration was prompted to perform an analysis of asbestos presence in the mine.  Of the 30 air samples taken where miners worked, ever sample revealed toxic levels of asbestos, and the 12 ore and rock samples detected the presence of both tremolite and actinolite asbestos.  Seven of the latter samples proved very high levels of asbestos are present in the mine, as several contained between 95 and 99 percent asbestos. 

The Virginia Vermiculite mine sells approximately 100,000 tons of the material each year.  The ore is then processed for use in hundreds of products that are distributed throughout the United States.  Even though the mining of asbestos purportedly ended in 2002, this location continues to mine asbestos-contaminated ore.  Evidently, the asbestos cover-up has entered a new phase in its ever-growing history.

With the end of the asbestos epidemic seeming so far from over, it is important to be aware of the potential health effects of exposure to asbestos.  Contact with this toxic mineral can lead to a range of fatal diseases, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma cancer.  Asbestosis is a progressive lung disorder that begins with shortness of breath and culminates in respiratory failure (and even has the potential to develop into cancer).  Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that attacks the body’s mesothelial cells, which compose the internal linings of the lungs, heart, and abdomen.  In many patients, mesothelioma treatment  entails palliative measures, as curative treatments seldom afford positive results.  According to the National Cancer Institute, asbestos has also been linked to gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers as well.




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