Last year, Dr. Raja Flores, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at the Mount Sinai Hospital and “considered one of the world's leading experts in pleural mesothelioma and asbestosis,” was interviewed by an Australian news station about a “a serious health issue” developing in New York City. The dust that fell on Lower Manhattan during 9/11, he explained, contained “more than 400,000 kilograms of asbestos, mercury, fibreglass and benzene… [Asbestos] contaminated a huge portion of the city and that entire population was exposed.” And because asbestos diseases usually take a decade or more to develop, he said that starting now, “I think you will probably see double or tripling of the number of lung cancers in people who were in New York City on 9/11 and mesothelioma and people dying of pleural fibrosis from asbestosis.”
Fast forward almost 17 years from 9/11, when last week, a huge steam pipe explosion blew asbestos all over the Flatiron section of New York City, coating “cars, buildings and people with asbestos-filled muck.” As we wait for this area to be cleaned-up, one question on everyone’s mind is: why was this lethal toxin used in New York City pipes and buildings in the first place? Simple answer: it shouldn't have been.
In the 1970s, while the World Trade Center was being built, a decades-long industry cover-up about the link between asbestos and fatal disease began to publicly unravel. This is why asbestos’ “controversial installation” was eventually halted in the middle of twin tower construction. In fact, as the Center for Justice & Democracy explains here, that fraud was already well-underway, originating at least as far back as 1932, when the exploding steam pipe was installed. Here’s what the industry already knew by then:
- In 1899, a female asbestos factory worker in England died from what was confirmed to be asbestos-related disease.
- At least as early as 1917, U.S. doctors saw lung scarring in asbestos workers.
- By 1918, U.S. and Canadian insurance companies, like Prudential (the nation’s wealthiest life insurer), stopped issuing life-insurance policies to asbestos workers because they were dying at higher rates.
- In 1927, as workers in factories were developing pulmonary asbestosis, the first workman’s comp disability claim for asbestosis was paid.
- By 1928, other life insurers (Penn Mutual, John Hancock) were charging asbestos workers extra premiums because their mortality rate was 50 percent higher than everyone else’s.
- At least 10 studies showing the relationship between asbestos exposure and asbestosis were conducted during the 1920s and 30s. Among them was a 1929 survey of asbestos workers conducted by MetLife’s physician, who found large numbers of workers developing incurable lung disease. When this survey was being prepared for publication, MetLife allowed asbestos industry lawyers to water down and delete unfavorable passages about the relationship between asbestos and asbestos disease. It took litigators over 50 years to discover this.
- A 1935 publication reported that the insurance industry had known about the asbestos hazard since 1928; the president of a North Carolina asbestos company attacked the story in a letter to the editor, calling it “unconfirmed dramatized tommyrot.”
- On April 24, 1933, the board of directors for asbestos industry leader Johns-Manville approved a deal with an attorney who represented plaintiffs in 11 asbestosis cases brought by former employees. The board agreed to pay $30,000 to settle these cases along with a demand that the employees’ attorney not sue the company again in order to remove him as a legal threat. The minutes of this meeting did not come to light for more than 45 years and only as a result of litigation by asbestos victims. In one case, plaintiffs had to file three separate motions to compel production of these minutes after the company repeatedly lied about their existence.
In fact, when trial lawyers started trying to litigate against the asbestos industry in the 1970s, they had no idea what the industry knew about the link between asbestos exposure and diseases like cancer. Without such evidence, trial lawyers lost many cases at these early stages, failing to even get before juries, getting paid nothing and going into debt.
But they kept digging. After nearly a decade of difficult discovery, which the industry fought at every step, and investigative work on their own (such as painstakingly excavating information from old workers’ comp files), these lawyers were finally able to piece together a record. It’s around that time that World Trade Center construction stopped relying on asbestos. Of course by then, half the twin towers had already been built, full of asbestos to poison the city when the towers came crashing down.
As to that underground pipe installed in 1932, don’t let anyone tell you the industry didn’t know how dangerous asbestos was back then. They knew. Then they actively conspired for 50 years to suppress knowledge about asbestos hazards, which led to millions of deaths. And sadly as a result, there are many more victims to come.
(For more, see Paul Brodeur, “Annals of Law: The Asbestos Industry on Trial, Part 1 – A Failure to Warn,” “Part 2 – Discovery,” “Part 3 – Judgement” and “Park IV – Bankruptcy,” New Yorker Magazine, 1985).