Asbestos, the talc-like mineral once used
in everything from fire retardant wallboard to automotive brake
linings, is much in the news because of a blizzard of class-action
lawsuits against what sometimes seems to be every American who
runs a business.
Having sued companies that mined and produced
asbestos into bankruptcy, personal injury lawyers are now suing
virtually every company or business that ever used asbestos in
a product, even when no harm was done.
Last year, the Rand Institute of Civil
Justice released a study saying a whopping 85 percent of America's
major corporations are targets of asbestos lawsuits, as are tens
of thousands of smaller businesses.
More than 67 companies hit by asbestos
lawsuits have declared bankruptcy. Several hundred more may do
so. The total liability involved in these lawsuits nears $300
To put this number in perspective, it's
about how much it costs the U.S. to win a significant regional
Asbestos liabilities depress the economy,
reducing government cash flows and retirement portfolios.
If only all these costs were in the service
of a good cause. Most of it isn't.
For many, the mere mention of the word
asbestos is enough to raise hackles.
In fact, the answer to the question of
the amount of danger actually posed by asbestos, like many involving
scientifically complex questions, is a less than definitive "it
If directly inhaled over long periods
in enclosed quarters without the protection of a mask, asbestos
can be lethal. During the first six decades of the 20th century,
hundreds of thousands of laborers in mines and factories worked
largely unprotected from clouds of asbestos dust. Shipyard workers
who sprayed asbestos onto the interior walls of troop ships during
World War II developed debilitating diseases such as asbestosis
and mesothelioma, and many died premature and painful deaths.
As smoking exacerbates the damage asbestos
causes to the lungs, the danger was exacerbated by the federal
government, which provided two cartons of free cigarettes a week
to the shipyard workers.
When those shipyard workers began incurring
serious asbestos ailments en masse in the 1960s and 1970s, the
same government stepped in forcefully.
Helping to lay the groundwork for the
current crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency took a zero-tolerance
line against asbestos, falsely stating that even infinitesimal
amounts pose a health hazard.
This failed to stand up to scientific
scrutiny. Numerous independent studies later concluded that asbestos,
when sealed into products, is basically harmless.
In 1998, a study by scientists at the
University of Quebec found that the incidence of lung cancer in
women in a mining community who had limited exposure to asbestos
- on their miner husband's clothing, for example - was no higher
than women living elsewhere.
Asbestos is still used, in encapsulated
form, in many useful and safe products. And chemical-based alternative
substances that attempt to mimic the structural and fire-resistant
characteristics of asbestos are proving to have risks of their
It will come as a surprise to most people
to learn that every one of us inhales between 10,000 and 15,000
fibers of asbestos per day, most of which is natural.
Asbestos actually is found in two-thirds
of the rocks on earth and typically become airborne through forces
such as wind and landslides.
Injustices are being done. Lawsuits in
cases in which no one is sick are depleting the funds available
to those who are ill. Companies are being sued, and livelihoods
lost, even in cases where there was only a slight link to asbestos.
Longview Fibre Company, a paper maker
based in the Columbia River town of Longview, Washington, recently
was named in 360 asbestos lawsuits.
Longview Fibre never made a product that
contained asbestos, but one of it plants used a product that did.
"We were taken by surprise," said Robert Arkell, the
company's general counsel, "and we continue to be surprised."
The only asbestos products that are hazardous
to humans are ones that can crumble easily, according to the EPA,
which now advises homeowners to leave asbestos siding where it
is, as long as it's safely covered in paint and not crumbling.
A recent USA Today investigation concluded
that "a person who spends a career inside a building rich
with asbestos materials is more likely to die of a lightning bolt,
a bee sting or a toothpick lodged in the throat than an asbestos
In some cases, asbestos can be dangerous.
Excessive lawsuits hurt us all.
Amy Ridenour is President of
The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington,
D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].