Those who worked in construction trades prior to the 1970s were very likely to have been exposed to asbestos. Because of its heat-resistant and fireproof characteristics, asbestos – chiefly in the form of chrysotile – was commonly used in construction materials. These materials ranged from insulation and siding, to paints and ACM (asbestos containing material) impregnated concrete, as well as some landscaping materials.
The highly profitable asbestos industry in the U.S. spent millions of dollars not only to suppress the numerous scientific studies indicating the dangers of asbestos (such as asbestosis, a scaring of the lungs, or mesothelioma, a deadly form of asbestos cancer that is usually fatal within two years or less of diagnosis), but also on public relations campaigns to convince the American people of its safety. It has been known as far back as the 1930s that asbestos was responsible for a number of respiratory diseases. Despite the best efforts of the asbestos corporations, some of this information was inevitably leaked before the entire cover-up was exposed in 1977. These corporations argued that asbestos was completely safe as long as it was not disturbed.
There is a certain amount of truth in this statement, but it is only part of the story. What corporations knew, and deliberately failed to mention, was the fact that as asbestos products age, they become what is known as friable. Essentially, the material becomes brittle and starts to crumble. As this happens, the microscopic fibers literally flake off into the atmosphere, floating around as dust that is easily inhaled and ingested.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that as of the mid-1980s, one-fifth of all public buildings – nearly three-quarters of a million – contained aging, friable asbestos products.
What Exactly is Asbestos?
In commercial advertisements, the asbestos industry pointed out how its product was lightweight, non-flammable, heat resistant, impervious to water and acid, non-conducive of electricity, unaffected by termites or other pests, and above all, is economical.
In fact, asbestos is literally stone – a group of six silicate minerals. The most common of these is chrysolite, touted as the “safe” form of asbestos, despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary. It is the inorganic nature of asbestos fibers that make them so deadly.
Specific Manufacturers and Products
Among building materials, asbestos masquerades under different names, or has been hidden in other products. Two significant examples were tremolite and vermiculite. In the late 1950s and early 1960’s, the Scott Company marketed the latter as a “water carrier” and “soil conditioner”. Vermiculite is formed by the same geologic processes that produce asbestos, and was mined in the same areas. Vermiculite was virtually always contaminated with tremolite, which is a particularly deadly form of asbestos.
The Johns-Manville Corporation, whose founder ironically died of asbestosis, was a major manufacturer of insulation products in the U.S. and Canada from the late 1920’s through the 1980s. In the wake of asbestos litigation, the corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1982. It was eventually acquired by Berkshire-Hathaway, under which it continues to operate as a subsidiary.
Owens-Corning was a manufacturer of fireproof materials that included roofing shingles from the late 1930s onward. This corporation also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2000.
Eagle-Picher, a manufacturer of water filtration equipment and producer of diatomaceous earth, was among a number of defendants in Tomplait v. Johns-Manville, et. al. when the first asbestos suit was filed back in 1966. The company manufactured asbestos insulation between 1931 and 1971.
Other construction materials used in both public buildings and residential homes prior to 1980 include asbestos-impregnated paints and wallboard. EPA regulations require that workers involved in remodeling projects or asbestos removal be provided with proper protective equipment.
Those employed in construction before 1976 who are at highest risk for asbestos exposure include the following:
Brick Layer and Stone Mason
Heating and Air Conditioning Installer
Drywall Installer and Plasterer