Although the history of asbestos use stretches back thousands of years, the true appreciation of its hazards did not begin until the late 1890s. This was due to the material’s newfound usefulness as a commercial product in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution’s new reliance on steam-driven equipment is one feature of that era that helped support the popularity of this material, as its ability to insulate was discovered. Unfortunately, as the value of asbestos became more and more apparent, its use increased as well. Among the first uses of this material were as a packing and sealing material, followed by insulation roles.
Early Disease Studies
As early as 1898, Ronald F. Dodson and Samuel P. Hammar explained that the Lady Inspector of Factories in Great Britain noted the disease that asbestos exposure was causing among textile workers. In 1899 British doctor, H. Montague Murray, conducted a post-mortem examination of a man in his mid-thirties who had died of respiratory insufficiency. He reported that the man was the tenth worker in his area to succumb to such a disease, which included extensive interstitial fibrosis and what he called “curious bodies” in the man’s lungs.
However, a 1907 publication of Murray’s autopsy findings, along with commentary, falsely concluded that proper ventilation measures would spare these employees in the future. Further studies and papers followed for the next few decades of the 1900s as asbestos-related diseases were described and their causes quantified. One man, Cooke, even coined the term “asbestosis” in 1924.
Early Company Reactions
In addition to the medical interest in asbestos-related diseases, other parties quickly began looking at the trends involving employee asbestos exposure, albeit with less humanistic intentions. Dodson and Hammar explain that in 1918, the Prudential Life Insurance Company, insurer of Canadian and U.S. workers, learned in the harm of breathing asbestos fibers from one of its vice presidents, who was a statistician. In response, the authors explain that the company then stopped offering policies on the lives of asbestos workers, rather than publishing their findings and spreading the word of such risks.
Other responses to these findings and reports included the intentional suppression of such information. Dodson and Hammar report that this intentional suppression of information began as early as the 1920s in England, as at least one asbestos company knew yet attempted to conceal such information. Similar sentiments could also be seen in internal communications from American manufacturers and companies, as they openly discussed among themselves ways to downplay the dangers and control the publication of information that could damage their reputations. Human lives, at this time, were considered secondary to the profits of these companies, and all changes that threatened those profits were hastily rejected.
Dodson, Ronald F. & Samuel P. Hammar. (2006). Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis Group.