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
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
The findings were reprinted in American medical journals. And American
asbestos companies, who were seeing robust business growth, were taking
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
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.''
Part 3 of Shipyards, a Crucible for Tragedy