“Those Who Live by Asbestos…”

The First-Century Rabbi of Nazareth, Yeshua ben-Yossef, is quoted in the New Testament as having said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” This seems to have been the case with two of the most significant figures in the history of asbestos. Henry Ward Johns was a mere 21 years of age when he founded the company that bore his name in 1858. A curious young man, he had begun experimenting with asbestos around that time, and found it to be “the mineral of a thousand uses.” His company, located in Manhattan, specialized in the manufacture of fireproof building materials–primarily textiles, roofing and insulation. His company prospered for the next forty years. As he approached the age of sixty, however, Johns’ health began to fail: he had difficulty breathing, and his body was wracked by intense, blood-producing coughs. His physicians diagnosed the illness as a disease with the nearly unpronounceable name of “phthisis pneumonitis.”

The description of Johns’ symptoms is almost identical to that of the disease we know today as asbestosis. By 1898, H.W. Johns was dead–killed by the very substance that had made him a wealthy man. Three years later, H.W. Johns merged with the Manville Covering Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to form Johns-Manville, a company that would forever be tied to asbestos and that continues to operate today as a subsidiary of Berkshire-Hathaway, Inc. Early in 1916, a dashing young explorer and entrepreneur was hiking in the mountains north of Libby, Montana–about seventy miles northeast of Spokane, Washington–and made a fascinating discovery in an old silver mine. It was a mineral that when heated, literally turned into something resembling popcorn–a soft, absorbent substance that seemed virtually indestructible. Edward Alley had discovered vermiculite–by itself, a harmless substance that was fire and heat resistant, vermin-proof, lightweight, weather-proof and above all, inexpensive. For the next twenty years, Alley made a fortune mining and marketing what he called Zonolite. What Alley did not know was that the ore was contaminated with a fibrous, silicate mineral called tremolite–a form of chrysotile asbestos. By 1935, those fibers had robbed Alley of his health and his life the way they would for thousands of those who worked the mines of Libby over the next half century.