Asbestos exposure was common at construction sites and industrial facilities in all 50 states for much of the 20th century. The worst levels of exposure took place at mines and shipyards, leading to high rates of pleural mesothelioma decades later.
At the asbestos industry’s peak in the 1950s and 1960s, it had a product for every machine, vehicle and construction project. Its salesmen traveled the continent, and its ads ran in national media. Asbestos became a normal part of the American landscape.
Half a century later, the consequences are clear: There are Americans suffering from pleural mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases in every state of the nation.
Asbestos occurs naturally in many parts of the eastern and western United States. America’s first asbestos mine opened in the Sall Mountain area of northern Georgia. Before asbestos mining came to the U.S., it was already well developed in Canada.
The last U.S. asbestos operation was the King City Asbestos Company mine in central California, which closed in 2002.
Now asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S., and it is completely banned in Canada. South Africa and Brazil are also former asbestos exporters that have banned the toxic mineral.
Russia currently dominates the global asbestos-mining industry.
Many of the first American asbestos-insulation factories were set up in the region now known as the Rust Belt. They had plenty of customers close at hand. Asbestos construction materials were commonplace in almost every industrial worksite from the 1930s to the 1970s.
One of the original asbestos-product manufacturers was the H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company in New York. In 1901, it merged with the Manville Covering Company founded in Wisconsin to become Johns-Manville, one of the titans of the asbestos industry.
Other major asbestos manufacturers included Keasbey & Mattison, Flintkote, Flexitallic and Unarco. All these companies took part in covering up the connection between asbestos and pleural mesothelioma.
By the mid-20th century, there was asbestos in everything from the steel mills of Pennsylvania to the manufacturing plants of Ohio, Illinois and Michigan. Workers were exposed to asbestos whether they were making girders at U.S. Steel, glass at Pittsburgh Corning or cars at Ford Motor Company.
Occupational asbestos exposure is much less of a problem in the 21st century, but there is still danger from the asbestos materials that remain in old buildings.
The worst asbestos exposure incident in modern times occurred as part of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The twin towers were built with hundreds of tons of asbestos, which was pulverized and released into the surrounding neighborhoods when the towers fell.
Demand for asbestos skyrocketed when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. Shipyard workers wrapped asbestos insulation around countless pipes and used asbestos cement to install and repair boilers.
It was common for military service members on ships to work, eat and sleep in clouds of asbestos dust. This has led to a heavy burden of pleural mesothelioma among American veterans.
During the shipbuilding boom, Todd Shipyards Corporation ran lucrative operations up and down the western seaboard and across the country. The Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, an offshoot of Bethlehem Steel, also operated several shipyards and earned enormous profits.
The oil and chemical-refining industry was another major consumer of asbestos insulation. This industry is particularly concentrated in the Gulf Coast region.
In fact, the first successful asbestos lawsuit was filed by an insulation worker who worked in the Beaumont area. Clarence Borel filed a lawsuit over asbestosis, but ultimately died of pleural mesothelioma before the trial concluded. The jury awarded compensation to his widow.
Asbestos exposure was a hazard for industrial workers and construction tradesmen in all 50 states. The risk to construction workers was especially high in the northern part of the country, where the cold winters influenced home builders to use more asbestos-insulation products.
Some popular products were unintentionally manufactured with asbestos. This was the case with Zonolite attic insulation. Zonolite was made by W.R. Grace & Co. using a mineral called vermiculite mined near the town of Libby, Montana.
Vermiculite from Libby, Montana, is naturally contaminated with asbestos. Decades of mining near Libby led to one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Thousands of residents of the small town have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, and hundreds have already died.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began to intervene in 1999, and the area around Libby was placed on the Superfund list in 2002. This federal program provides funds for cleaning up toxic contamination.
The EPA began to wrap up its Libby operation in 2017, making it the longest U.S. asbestos-cleanup project of all time.
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