Brief History of Asbestos:
Hiding the Dangers in the Name of Profits
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been commercially valuable since the end of the 19th century because of its strength and resistance to heat. It comes in two forms - amphibole (which includes amosite, crocidolite and other varieties) and serpentine (of which chrysotile asbestos is the only form).
Ninety-five per cent of all the asbestos ever mined and used commercially in the world is chrysotile asbestos.2 Today, chrysotile asbestos is the only form of asbestos used commercially.
The asbestos industry therefore has no problem with the banning of other forms of asbestos, since they are of no commercial value. The industry is, however, determined to continue selling chrysotile asbestos, regardless of the public health catastrophe it is creating in developing countries, where working conditions are grim and health protections usually non-existent.
All forms of asbestos break down into ever finer fibres that cannot be seen by the human eye. If breathed in, they can cause several deadly diseases for which there is, at present, no cure: asbestosis, lung cancer and other forms of cancer, including mesothelioma.
These diseases often take decades to appear, so that in countries where there is little or no awareness of the hazard asbestos presents, it is easy for the asbestos industry to hide the harm being caused until it is too late. Even when people start dying from exposure to asbestos, the cause of the deaths may go unnoticed, especially in poor countries, just like it did, and continues to do, in so many industrial countries.
The threat that asbestos poses for human health was first noted by factory inspectors in the U.K. in 1898. By the 1930s a number of significant articles had been published in medical journals that clearly described asbestos-related disease. By the 1960s there was widespread documentation of asbestos-caused cancer among workers and bystanders, including workers' family members.
Yet around the world, the asbestos industry suppressed this information from their employees and from the public. Just as the tobacco industry did, asbestos corporations exploited "medical uncertainty" by employing a host of medical and scientific experts who were prepared to lie and to protect corporate interests at the expense of the health of the exposed populations.3
As late as 1972 Johns-Manville, the world's biggest asbestos company, which operated asbestos plants in Canada, had a corporate policy of not telling employees when their medical examinations showed they had asbestosis. In 1978 the company was still maintaining that reports of people being harmed by asbestos in the environment were fantasy and sensationalism.4
In 1982 asbestos disease lawsuits led the company to declare bankruptcy, whereupon David Austern, the court-appointed lawyer in charge of the Manville Trust, found from the company's documents that they had corporate knowledge from 1934 that asbestos is a deadly hazard.5
In a memo, Austern stated "The content and tone of the documents demonstrate that Manville officers, directors and employees…held secret information that had it been revealed, would have prevented the deaths of thousands of people."6
A similar cover-up of the dangers of asbestos occurred in Quebec.
The 1976 Report of the Beaudry Commission of Inquiry into Health Issues in the Asbestos Industry, set up after strikes by Quebec asbestos miners, said: "They (employers) have kept available information about the dangerous effects of asbestos dust away from the workers and the unions."7
Everywhere asbestos has been used - Europe, the United States, Japan, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere - it has left in its wake a horrific public health catastrophe. It has cost, and continues to cost, hundreds of billions of dollars for health care for its victims, compensation, removal from buildings, remediation and legal costs.
The WHO estimates that between five and ten million people will ultimately die from asbestos-related diseases.8
Scientists have conservatively estimated that more than half a million cases of mesothelioma (a cancer caused only by asbestos) and asbestos-related lung cancer will occur throughout Europe between 1995 and 2029.9
Among B.C. workers alone, it is estimated that 1,500 workers will die from asbestos-caused disease over the next five years. And it is known that many cases of asbestos-caused disease are not recognized as such and not captured in the figures.10
The hundreds of billions of dollars presently at stake in court cases in industrialized countries, involving victims from past asbestos use seeking compensation, are a powerful incentive for the industry and its paid experts to continue denying the harm caused by chrysotile asbestos.
In the U.S., for example, by 2002, approximately 730,000 people had filed claims representing hundreds of billions of dollars of potential liability for American corporations. According to one estimate, over 10,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-caused disease. A Senate bill to create a $140 billion dollar compensation fund failed, in part because the sum was insufficient to cover the vast number of claims for asbestos-related diseases.11
Currently, as one small example of costs, Canadians are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to have asbestos removed from the Parliament Buildings. Apparently, our government believes that asbestos is not harmful to people in developing countries, but is harmful to Canadian MPs.
Or perhaps it believes that the lives of MPs matter, whereas the lives of impoverished people in developing countries do not.
What makes this tragedy especially heartbreaking is that it is unnecessary. It has been known for many decades that all forms of asbestos are deadly, and that Canada's claim that asbestos can be safely used has no credibility.
Canada has played the lead role in this tragedy. Other key allies of the asbestos industry - Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, India, Russia - do not enjoy the international cachet of Canada. Unfortunately for people around the world who are being exposed to harm because of our country's endorsement of "safe" asbestos, Canada still has an undeserved reputation for being trustworthy.
In their history of the "world-wide cover-up and continuing tragedy" of asbestos, authors McCulloch and Tweedale note: "The Canadian industry, strongly supported by its national government, has played a key role in promoting the fiction that white fibre (chrysotile asbestos) is harmless. To that end it has manipulated the medical record and corrupted public debate".12
2. Robert L. Virta, U.S. Geological Survey, email of August 20, 2008
3. R.N. Proctor, Cancer Wars, New York: Basic Books, 1995: 110-22
4. Johns-Manville Corporation, Annual Report (1978), p.26
5. McCulloch and Tweedale (2008), page 267
6. D.T. Austern memo re. Manville Documents, Feb. 8, 1988
7. R. Beaudry, G. Lagacé, and L. Jukau, Rapport Final: Comité d'Etude sur La Salubrité dans L'Industrie de L'Amiante (1976)
8. World Health Organization, Occupational Health: Ethically Correct, Economically Sound. Fact Sheet Number 84
9. Peto J, Decarli A, LaVecchia C, Levi F, Negri E. The European Mesothelioma Epidemic, British Journal of Cancer. 1999; 79:566-72
10. Prof. Paul Demers, UBC School of Environmental Health, BC Construction Unions Raise Alarm about Asbestos Exposure, Vancouver Sun, Feb. 4, 2008
11. J. Brophy, M. Keith, J. Schieman, Canada's Asbestos Legacy at Home and Abroad, Int J Occup Envir Health, 2007; 13: p.236
12. McCulloch & Tweedale (2008), page 258
Brief History of Asbestos: Hiding the Dangers in the Name of Profits
How the Canadian Government has Marketed Asbestos to Developing Countries
World Call of Conscience to Prime Minister Harper