Shipyards, a Crucible for Tragedy
Part 2: A growing awareness of danger
By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot, May 6, 2001
In 1899, London’s Charing Cross Hospital, not far from the Thames, admitted a 33-year-old man who had worked for 10 years in a dust-laden British asbestos factory. There, he had operated machines that cleaned and straightened asbestos fibers used in weaving.
The man told his doctor, H. Montague Murray, that he was the only survivor among 10 people who had worked in the carding room. The others had perished of work-related disease, and soon the 33-year-old man, whose name is lost to history, would be dead, too.
The diagnosis was pulmonary fibrosis — scarring of the lungs. When Dr. Murray examined sections of the dead man’s lungs, magnified many times, he spotted what he described as “spicules of asbestos.” The microscopic fibers had lodged in the worker’s lungs because his respiratory system had been unable to expel them.
The same characteristic of asbestos that killed the English factory worker led to a huge surge in its demand during the early 20th century: It is virtually indestructible.
Asbestos, its antecedent a Greek term meaning “inextinguishable,” is a geological oddity. It is a mineral mined from the earth that can be woven into a cloth of flaxen softness. Its fibers are light as thistledown. When disturbed, tiny asbestos particles can remain suspended in midair for hours.
Asbestos exhibits commercially desirable qualities: It resists heat, electricity, corrosion and decay. And it has remarkable tensile strength.
World asbestos production jumped from a few thousand metric tons per year in 1920 to 500,000 metric tons in 1929. It ultimately would soar to 5 million tons per year.
Demand for plentiful, mined-from-nature asbestos grew as thermal insulation for ships, where it was used as pipe covering, cloth to wrap the pipe covering and cement powder poured from bags and mixed with water. It was also used extensively in textile manufacturing and construction trades.
As the use of asbestos burgeoned in the early 20th century, concern — and evidence — mounted in the United States and Europe about its effects on human lungs when inhaled.
In 1906, 16 deaths from pulmonary fibrosis were reported in a French asbestos textile plant. The deaths led to the wearing of respirators by workers and the installation of an exhaust ventilation system.
In 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published a report by Frederick L. Hoffman, a statistician for Prudential Insurance Co. of America, who concluded that American asbestos workers were experiencing unusually early deaths. Hoffman noted that 13 asbestosis deaths had been documented among asbestos textile workers.
In the 1920s, some American and Canadian insurance companies refused to issue life-insurance policies to asbestos workers.
In 1924, British pathologist W.E. Cooke published the first known paper in general medical literature describing asbestos disease, characterized by fibrosis, or scarring, of the lungs. Three years later, he gave it a name: asbestosis.
A January 1928 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “asbestosis, because of its dangers and its unique pathologic features, deserves more attention than it has had.”
In 1930, A British physician and a factory inspector presented to Parliament a 34-page report based on a two-year study of workers in a British asbestos textile factory. The report concluded that asbestos causes “interference with the general efficiency of the lungs” and recommended dust-control procedures to prevent disease.
The report noted that, “with continued exposure to high concentrations of dust, the fibrosis may be fully developed in 7 to 9 years, and may cause death after about 13 years exposure, exceptionally in a shorter period.”
The findings were reprinted in American medical journals. And American asbestos companies, who were seeing robust business growth, were taking note.
In 1933, executives with Denver-based Johns-Manville Corp., then the world’s largest maker of asbestos products, knew they had a problem. Eleven workers at the company’s Manville, N.J., plant had contracted asbestosis and demanded compensation.
Meeting in secrecy, the Johns-Manville board of directors instructed the company’s president to strike a deal with an attorney representing the 11 workers. The company paid a total of $30,000 to settle the claims, but only with the written proviso that the attorney would not “directly or indirectly participate in the bringing of new actions against the corporation.”
Two years later, on Sept. 25, 1935, A.S. Rossiter, the editor of “Asbestos,” an industry trade magazine, wrote a letter to Sumner Simpson, president of Raybestos-Manhattan Inc., the nation’s second-largest purveyor of asbestos goods.
The second paragraph of the letter read:
“Always you have requested that for certain obvious reasons we publish nothing (about asbestosis), and, naturally your wishes have been respected.”
Six days later, Simpson forwarded the letter to Vandiver Brown, Johns-Manville’s corporate counsel. In a letter of his own, Simpson wrote to Brown, “I think the less said about asbestos, the better off we are.”