Multinational Monitor

SEP 2000
VOL 21 No. 9


Global Asbestos Justice: South African Asbestos Victims Win Right to Sue Cape Plc. in UK Courts
by Laurie Kazen-Allen

Choking off the Right to Sue: GAF's Campaign to Restrict Victims' Rights
by Charlie Cray

A Breath of Fresh Air: WTO Ruling Upholds France's Asbestos Ban, Rejecting Canadian Challenge
by Laurie Kazen-Allen


A History of the
Deadly Dust

an interview with
Barry Castleman


Behind the Lines

Protest and Globalization

The Front
Milking Profits in Pakistan - The "Lawsuit Abuse" Scam

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


A History of the Deadly Dust

An Interview with Barry Castleman

Barry Castleman is an environmentalist and researcher specializing in health issues. Castleman is the author of Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects, which is the standard reference for understanding the history of asbestos-caused diseases. His current work addresses the dumping of asbestos in developing countries.

Multinational Monitor: What is asbestos?

Barry Castleman: Asbestos is a mineral fiber mined primarily in Canada and Russia. It used to be mined in South Africa, but no longer. There's still some mining in Zimbabwe, China, India and other countries. Because it is a mineral fiber, it's fairly heat resistant and chemically inert. It's been used as a reinforcing agent in such things as brake linings, thermal insulation for pipe covering, vinyl flooring, packing, gaskets and roofing materials. Its main uses today are in cement construction materials, mostly corrugated roofing, asbestos cement pipe widely used for water supplies and asbestos cement sheet products used for internal walls in buildings.

MM: What are the health effects of exposure to asbestos?

Castleman: The main hazards of asbestos are attributed to the inhalation of the dust created in the manipulation and manufacture of these products. Very fine, respirable particles were first identified about 100 years ago as the cause of a lung-scarring disease called asbestosis. In the 1930s, it began to be recognized that people with this condition also had more than their expected share of lung cancer. By 1943, lung cancer was included among the list of compensable occupational diseases for asbestos workers in Nazi Germany. This gives an idea of how long it has been known that asbestos is a cancer-causing agent. Other cancers have since been attributed to asbestos, the most worrisome being a very rare form of cancer called mesothelioma of the pleura and peritoneum, which are, respectively, the thin membranes enclosing the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity.

Cancers of the pleura and peritoneum are rare in the general population but quite frequent in asbestos-exposed people. It was the presence of these very rare tumors, which are now thought of as signal tumors for asbestos exposure, that made it possible to see that the mortal hazards of asbestos were clearly going beyond the factory gate into the houses of asbestos workers and the neighbors of the asbestos factory. This was confirmed by statistical studies in the mid-1960s.

MM: How much exposure is required for these health effects to occur?

Castleman: It's generally accepted by medical authorities around the world that no level of asbestos exposure can be considered safe, and that the more exposure one has, the greater the risk. The incapacity of the lungs caused by asbestosis is the result of a multitude of insults to the lung from individual fibers. Cancer is different in that the emergence of a cancer can actually occur from as little as one asbestos fiber interacting with the cell of the lungs or another cell in the body in such a way as to start the chain of events that creates a self-reproducing malignant cell.

MM: How many workers exposed to asbestos end up with asbestos-related disease?

Castleman: There are different studies that have been done on different cohorts, or groups of people exposed to asbestos. The most extensively studied cohort was the people involved in insulation work. Beginning in the 1960s, studies on the population of insulation workers - pipe coverers were the most heavily exposed group, but they worked alongside electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters, carpenters and other kinds of construction trades in shipyards and other construction sites - showed that about 40 percent of them were dying from occupational cancer and asbestosis. If they were still alive 30 years after starting the trade, almost all of the workers in the trade had lung scarring from asbestos. A lot of these were jobs that went from father to son among the trades, so you would have household contact even preceding the time that the son went into his father's occupation and started working as an insulation worker. Asbestos insulation products were banned in the United States in 1975. Although they can still be found in old buildings and construction sites, they haven't been installed in such sites since 1975.

MM: When did the U.S. asbestos industry know about the risks?

Castleman: The Johns-Manville Corporation was founded by a man named Henry Ward Johns, a nineteenth century inventor who died in 1898 of a lung-scarring condition. We don't know any more about what it was. I checked all the New York newspapers to see if there was anything in the obituaries about cause of death and couldn't find anything. But the death certificate suggests that he died of a lung-scarring condition. One can imagine him seeing foremen and workers in the factories that he had helped design and build dying from this dust and developing the same kind of pulmonary damage, the same kind of difficulty in breathing, the increasingly severe shortness of breath upon exertion to the point that speaking normally forces someone to pause for a breath. The occupational disease hazard of asbestos was recognized by government officials and the insurance industry by 1918. There was a report published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics written by an insurance actuary named Frederick Hoffman which said that it was by then generally the practice of U.S. and Canadian life insurance companies to not sell life insurance policies to asbestos workers because of the injurious nature of their occupation.

This was based on limited statistics showing that these people were dying of conditions variously attributed to such causes as pneumonia and tuberculosis. From the perspective of the life insurance companies they were bad risks, whatever their actual cause of death might have been. By 1918, reports were also starting to appear in the medical literature about the abnormal chest x-rays of people breathing asbestos dust. By the late 1920s, the word "asbestosis" was being used in the medical literature and there were claims being made against the Johns-Manville Corporation, the dominant asbestos corporation in the United States. By 1933, Johns-Manville's board of directors' minutes indicate that they paid off a number of these claims and made arrangements with the lawyer bringing these claims that he would no longer represent any asbestos victims in bringing suits against Johns-Manville.

MM: What did the industry do with the information it had on the harms of asbestos exposure?

Castleman: Asbestos, the industry trade magazine, was starting to cover some of these events as developments of common interest to companies in the asbestos industry, whose advertisements filled the magazine. This stopped in March 1930, the last issue of Asbestos magazine for about 40 years to mention that asbestos might be dangerous to your health. The correspondence that's been unearthed indicates that the companies were directing the trade magazine not to say anything about the hazards of asbestos. The evident reason was that they were being sued in various parts of the country - New Jersey, Illinois and other states. The last thing the companies wanted brought in as evidence while they were denying that there was any hazard were issues of the trade magazine with articles about asbestosis on one page and their advertisements on another.

MM: How did awareness of the harms of asbestos end up spreading among the public?

Castleman: The most amazing thing was there could be this substantial body of medical and scientific knowledge published in the medical literature and in safety publications, trade magazines, insurance publications and even general encyclopedias, and yet workers on the front lines of the risk were not made aware of it for decades. The unions were minimally funded for health and safety activities, and the companies weren't telling them about it. The companies were doing what they could to minimize regulations or any kind of public announcement of the hazards. In the 1930s, when the public health service came to do surveys in North Carolina, they were sternly admonished to not stir up any kind of damage suits by telling the workers that they were examining how dangerous asbestos was. The companies were certainly not putting any kind of warning labels on their products until the 1960s, after the mortality studies were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1964. Within months of those studies, some of the companies started to put mild warning labels on their cartons of insulation products. Even then they weren't putting warnings on sacks of pure asbestos being shipped from the mines in Canada and Southern Africa.

MM: What broke things open?

Castleman: The publication of those studies and the willingness of the doctor who conducted them - Dr. Irving Selikoff in New York - to publicize the results. Selikoff was assisted in his research by the insulation workers union locals in New York and New Jersey. They gave him their death cards. By using these cards, he was able to track down the death certificates of the individuals in the union who had joined or been members since the beginning of 1942. He followed them up through 1962. So there was a minimum of 20 years of follow-up for all the people in the study. He found that 255 of the 632 men had died. He recorded staggering excesses of cause-specific death rates, of lung cancer, mesothelioma, other cancers and asbestosis. Selikoff had an extraordinary personality. He was willing to talk to the media about these things. He understood that was part of what it was going to take to turn the situation around. Ultimately, along with Selikoff's efforts, it took the environmental movement and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupation Safety and Health Administration - agencies where occupational and environmental health professionals could have a job and not be working for big business. This broke open the conspiracy of silence and started getting this information into the public domain. This came at a time, the 1970s, when the media were much more receptive to stories about environmental health, occupational hazards and the unsavory role of business.

MM: Did the large-scale litigation then follow?

Castleman: Yes. The litigation actually started in the 1960s with a few cases in Texas. The precedent case was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1973. Many of the manufacturing companies were ultimately driven to bankruptcy by the litigation. The bankruptcies were strange affairs. The one involving Johns-Manville ended up creating two companies - the Johns-Manville Corporation, which was allowed to go on, and the Manville Trust. The corporation took on various names, but now it is called Johns-Manville again. The Manville Trust owns about 80 percent of the shares of Johns-Manville. It's supposed to use its wealth to pay off claims, but unfortunately the management of the Trust is a byzantine affair. The amounts of payments are small and the ritual that claimants have to go through to even get that are very arduous.

MM: How many new cases are there filed on asbestos in the United States?

Castleman: I think there are 200,000 to 300,000 cases pending and 20,000 or more continue to be filed each year by individuals alleging health impairment, economic loss, and pain and suffering.

MM: Why are there still so many if the use of the substance was phased out long ago?

Castleman: Dr. Selikoff's people predicted that the peak of occupational cancer from asbestos used prior to 1980 wouldn't occur until 1997, so we are still at a very high rate of incidence of disease. You've got a lot of men in their fifties, some of whom only worked with asbestos when they were much younger, who are still being struck down with these occupational cancers many years after their exposure to asbestos ceased.

MM: Is the litigation now automatic?
Castleman: There's nothing automatic about it. The plaintiffs' attorneys file the cases and try to get them to trial. The defense attorneys make their living delaying the cases as much as possible. Meanwhile, the defendants and their insurers sit on whatever money would be at stake and use it for their own purposes. From what I can tell, the defendants usually make their first good settlement offers on the eve of trial. Meanwhile, the companies are occasionally running to Congress and trying to change the laws so that their liabilities will be reduced by legislation.

MM: GAF says its proposal would streamline the process.

Castleman: It would do that. It would basically keep people from being able to go to court and sue. They'd have to instead go through some administrative process, which would create a bottleneck by making people get in line for administrative relief, which would be substantially less than what these people could get from a trial by jury.

MM: One of the things that a company like GAF says is that it's not fair for them to be subjected to punitive damages for things that happened so long ago and which they're no longer doing.

Castleman: That's funny. To say that any aspect of corporate crime has a statute of limitations when people are still dying as a result of the delayed effects of those acts is bizarre. Dr. Wilhelm Hueper, who wrote about this in the late 1940s, said the exposure of people to carcinogenic agents at work is similar to shooting people with a gun that has a delayed-action mechanism. The fact that these kinds of things are done for profit and not as random acts of vandalism on the street hardly vindicates them.

MM: What level of asbestos use is now permitted in the United States?

Castleman: The Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos in 1989 and various companies affected by that challenged the ban in court. They were able to get it overturned by an appeals court in New Orleans. The consumption of asbestos, however, continues to go down. It's down to about 3 percent of what it was at its peak in the 1970s.

There are only a few banned uses, such as the use in thermal insulation. The use of asbestos in drywall patching compounds was banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The use of asbestos filters for the manufacture of injectable drugs was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in the 1970s. But the use of asbestos in such things as brake lining and gaskets is allowed and still goes on in this country. All the major economic powers in Europe have banned asbestos, starting with the Scandinavian countries. And other countries have as well - Poland, Saudi Arabia and recently the United Arab Emirates.

MM: What's the regulatory situation like generally in the Third World?

Castleman: It's open season on workers in the Third World. It's like getting in a time machine and seeing what happened in the United States 30 or 40 years ago. They're taking power saws to sheets of asbestos cement in construction. Eighty-five percent of all the asbestos that's used is used in asbestos cement. If someone wants to knock down a wall and put in an archway in his house, no one tells them the dust is deadly. There's continued pollution of sites where mining and manufacturing of asbestos have gone on or continues to go on. We're organizing a conference in Brazil in September, bringing in people from all over the world to try to get problems with asbestos recognized and controlled and to get asbestos banned in countries that are the major users of asbestos today. Aside from Japan, it is mostly Third World countries. We're hoping that this conference will shorten the time that it takes to get asbestos use eliminated in so many countries. Of course we're going to have to deal with difficult problems like the unemployment caused in the industries using asbestos or factories that have to be shut down.

MM: What does the asbestos industry look like currently?

Castleman: It's changed quite a bit. It used to be big corporations based in Europe and the United States. Those companies have for the most part sold off their asbestos mines and manufacturing interests. A lot of them have gone into the manufacture of substitutes and some of them are in the process of doing that. One of the last multinationals still in the business is Saint-Gobain, which had to shut down their asbestos manufacturing in France when the ban came into effect in 1997. And yet in Brazil they owned asbestos mines and an asbestos manufacturing plant. For a couple of years they took quite a pounding in Brazil for this double standard. Saint-Gobain's asbestos subsidiary tried everything including criminal defamation proceedings to take out their leading critic - Fernanda Giannasi - who referred to them as the asbestos mafia. A court dismissed those charges. Immediately following that, the company announced it was going to follow the European Union timetable and stop using asbestos by 2005 in Brazil. I understand that there are asbestos cement plants closing down left and right in Brazil and that the companies in the industry support a ban so that they can move on to the development of improved technologies, such as the polyvinyl alcohol fibers which Saint-Gobain will probably license for use in Brazil. In the case of Johns-Manville, they sold their mine in Canada to the guys who were managing it for the equivalent of about three good years of profit. That was back in 1983 after they were in bankruptcy court. Similar kinds of things have been done with the mining companies in southern Africa, selling off to smaller and smaller companies. Many big corporations are still involved in the use of the products. Our investigations in Brazil have shown, for example, that major manufacturers are still using asbestos for brake parts and engine gaskets. I contacted people at General Motors a couple of years ago and managed to find an engineer who was knowledgeable about this and totally untrained in lying to the public. He explained to me that General Motors had found it possible to eliminate asbestos-containing engine gaskets five years ago in North America. He seemed surprised to hear that they were using such gaskets in Brazil. I subsequently visited one of the companies that supplies gasket material to General Motors in 1998 and saw them cutting up this material in a totally uncontrolled way. I have tried to approach General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. I've published editorials about this as well, calling upon one company to step forward and lead the rest to have a global policy of eliminating the use of asbestos. If anyone could have such a plan, it's these companies. My letters get referred to lawyers who represent these companies in damage suits and they basically tell me to get lost. They say, "We think you're just trying to gin up some evidence to bring into court against us." In fact, it may be brought into court some day that Allied-Signal is still manufacturing brake parts in a plant in Sorocaba Brazil that uses asbestos, and they're exporting maybe a million pounds a year of brake parts to the United States. It may not also please people to know that Garlock Corporation, which 10 years ago was boasting about the superiority of its asbestos-free gaskets and packings, now has asbestos gasket manufacturing plants in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada following the courts' overturn of the EPA's ban on asbestos.

MM: What's the level of political influence of the remaining asbestos manufacturers?

Castleman: Asbestos interests are still very strong in Zimbabwe, where they still mine it. They're much weaker in South Africa because the mines are all shut down - they're either mined out or shut down because they can't sell the stuff. But the companies are still dragging their feet about changing over to a non-asbestos material. In Canada, the asbestos industry is very strong, as demonstrated by the fact that Canada challenged a French asbestos ban at the WTO. The precedent would have affected the entire world if the WTO decision had gone the other way, and struck down the French regulation. People are wondering if the only difference between land mines and asbestos mines is what Canada exports. While Canada played such a positive role in pushing the landmine ban, what they are doing with asbestos is a national disgrace.

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