Death by Asbestos
On March 4, 2004, a seminal work on the deadly repercussions of asbestos use was released in Washington D.C. by the Environmental Working Group (EWG)1 which detailed “an epidemic of asbestos disease and mortality that affects every state and virtually every community in the country.” Amongst the startling discoveries made by the researchers are the following:
asbestos-related disease is responsible for the death of one out of every 125 American men over the age of 50;
10,000 Americans die each year, 30 per day, from these diseases;
between 1979 and 2001, more than 43,000 Americans died from mesothelioma, a type of asbestos cancer; in 1999, there were 2,343 mesothelioma fatalities;
the national asbestos death rate is increasing; over the next 40 years, 100,000 Americans will die;
US data shows asbestos deaths have occurred in each of the 50 states; the death toll is rising in nine of the ten states with the highest number of mesothelioma and asbestosis deaths.
Having studied the current financial status of companies seeking Chapter 11 protection from a “flood” of asbestos claims, the EWG report notes that this situation could have easily been avoided had these companies:
“acted responsibly and compassionately decades ago, when their highly detailed, proprietary knowledge showed that asbestos posed mortal risks to millions of their workers, and to tens of millions of Americans who came in contact with the deadly substance in their homes, schools and workplaces”
The report exposes the way in which viable corporations use Chapter 11 status to minimize their asbestos liabilities; far from being on the verge of a financial abyss, as they claim, most of them prosper during their period in Chapter 11.
Documents which show the complicity of major asbestos defendants and their insurers in the American asbestos epidemic make disturbing reading. The “unparalleled corporate callousness” with which vital information was suppressed and hazardous exposures were permitted to workers, their families, consumers, and local people represent the worst excesses of Western capitalism:
“For more than 50 years, company after company was willing to lie to their workers about the known hazards of asbestos, mislead regulators, manipulate science, and delay worker safeguards. During all of this time, not a single producer, user or insurance company stepped forward to defend the health and rights of workers who, with full knowledge of management and medical staff were literally dying by the thousands from exposure to this substance.”
The list of asbestos-containing products used in U.S. homes and workplaces which is featured in this report will almost certainly create cause for concern amongst most readers as it includes such familiar and seemingly innocuous items as: hand-held blow dryers, electric curling irons, heat guns, paper mache, paper, consumer patching compounds, barbecue fire starters, deep fryers, slow cookers, safes, filing cabinets and texture paint.
Speaking at the press conference which launched the publication of this authoritative analysis, Richard Wiles, Senior Vice President of EWG, criticized Congressional tort reform proposals saying:
“The focus of Congress is protecting businesses not victims and their families…This issue is a public health epidemic, it’s not about bankruptcies.”
Wiles’ call for an immediate ban on the use of asbestos in the U.S. was reiterated by Dr. Richard Lemen, one of the report’s authors and formerly the Assistant Surgeon General of the United States and Deputy Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Acknowledging the terrible price paid by American citizens, Lemen expressed concern at the situation in developing countries where the use of asbestos is increasing:
“There is no reason to continue the litany of unnecessary injury and death that comes from asbestos use. Alternatives exist, the time to ban asbestos is now.”
March 5, 2004