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Asbestos and the law

This article concerns asbestos-related legal and regulatory issues.



At the turn of the last century, asbestos was considered an ideal material for use in the construction industry. It was known to be an excellent fire retardant, to have high electrical resistivity, and was inexpensive and easy to use.[1]

The problem with asbestos arises when the fibers become airborne and are inhaled. Because of the size of the fibers, the lungs cannot expel them.[2] They are also sharp and penetrate tissues.

Health problems attributed to asbestos include[3]

  1. Asbestosis - A lung disease first found in textile workers[4][5][6], asbestosis is a scarring of the lung tissue from an acid produced by the body's attempt to dissolve the fibers. The scarring may eventually become so severe that the lungs can no longer function. The latency period ( meaning the time it takes for the disease to develop) is often 10-20 years.
  2. Mesothelioma - A cancer of the mesothelial lining of the lungs and the chest cavity, the peritoneum (abdominal cavity) or the pericardium (a sac surrounding the heart). Unlike lung cancer, mesothelioma has no association with smoking.[7] The only established causal factor is exposure to asbestos or similar fibers[8]. The latency period for mesothelioma may be 20-50 years. The prognosis for mesothelioma is grim, with most patients dying within 12 months of diagnosis.
  3. Cancer - Cancer of the lung, gastrointestinal tract, kidney and larynx have been linked to asbestos. The latency period for cancer is often 15-30 years. [9]

Considerable international controversy exists regarding the perceived rights and wrongs associated with litigation on compensation claims related to asbestos exposure and alleged subsequent medical consequences. Some measure of the vast range of views expressed in legal and political circles can perhaps be exemplified by the two quotes below, the first [9] from Prof. Lester Brickman, an American legal ethicist writing in the Pepperdine Law Review, and second, Michael Wills [10], a British Member of Parliament, speaking in the House of Commons on July 13th. 2006:

"A review of the scholarly literature indicates a substantial degree of indifference to the causes of this civil justice system failure. Many of the published articles on asbestos litigation focus on transactional costs and ways in which the flow of money from defendants to plaintiffs and their lawyers can be expeditiously and efficiently prioritized and routed. The failure to acknowledge, let along analyze, the overriding reality of specious claiming and meritless claims demonstrates a disconnect between the scholarship and the reality of the litigation that is nearly as wide as the disconnect between rates of disease claiming and actual disease manifestation".

"Many of those who I see in my surgeries have worked in a number of workplaces and they could have been exposed to asbestos in each of them, but medical science is such that no one can identify which of them it is. As a result, there has been a long and complex history of legal discussion on how to apportion liability. The lawyers and the judiciary have wrestled, rightly and valiantly, with complex and difficult law, but it has created despair for the families whom we represent. Many of my constituents’ families have been riven by the consequences of litigation in trying to get some compensation for a disease that has been contracted through no fault of theirs. That is cruel and unacceptable".

Regulation and government action

Worldwide, 60 countries (including those in the European Union) have banned the use of asbestos, in whole or in part.[10]. Some examples follow.


A nationwide ban on importing and using all forms of asbestos took effect on 31 December 2003. Reflecting the ban, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) revised asbestos-related material to promote a consistent approach to controlling exposure to workplace asbestos and to introduce best-practice health and safety measures for asbestos management, control and removal. The ban does not cover asbestos materials or products already in use at the time the ban was implemented.[11]

Although Australia has only a third of the UK's population, its asbestos disease fatalities approximate Britain's of more than 3,000 people per year.[12]


The only asbestos mines still operating in Canada are in the Province of Quebec. They are owned by the Quebec government who expropriated the Asbestos Corporation Limited in 1981 from its American parent, General Dynamics. Quebec is the second largest producer in the world behind Russia and the world's largest exporter of asbestos. Quebec exports 95 percent of its chrysotile production, mostly to Asian and other poor countries.[11] In 1999 the government of Canada went before the World Trade Organization to challenge, unsuccessfully, the ban on asbestos in France.[12]


France banned the use of asbestos in 1997, and the WTO upheld France's right to the ban in 2000. In addition, France has called for a world-wide ban. [13].

United Kingdom

The British Government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has promoted rigorous controls on asbestos handling, based on reports linking exposure to asbestos dust or fibres with thousands of annual deaths from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer.

  • "At least 3500 people in Great Britain die each year from mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer as a result of past exposure to asbestos. Annual numbers of deaths are predicted to go on rising into the next decade." [14]
  • The TUC (UK) report cites a figure of 5000 deaths per year. TUC (UK)

The HSE does not assume that any minimum threshold exists for exposure to asbestos below which a person is at zero risk of developing mesothelioma, since they consider that it cannot currently be quantified for practical purposes; they cite evidence from epidemiological studies of asbestos exposed groups to argue that even if any such threshold for mesothelioma does exist, it must be at a very low level. [15]. (There is currently no scientific consensus as to whether there does indeed exist such a specific threshold ).

On October 17, 2007 the Law Lords ruled that workers who have pleural plaques as a result of asbestos exposure will no longer be able to seek compensation as it does not constitute a disease. [16]

United States

The American Bar Association states that a growing number of claimants do not, and may never, suffer from asbestos illness. Because of the fear of a running statute of limitations, many people file claims who are not presently ill, but have had X-rays that show changes 'consistent with' asbestos disease. This 'now or never filing' is clogging the courts and delaying seriously ill claimants from having their cases heard. To alleviate this problem, the ABA recommends that (1) a clear standard of impairment be implemented, and (2) the statute of limitations not start ticking until a person actually becomes ill.[17]

According to the Environmental Working Group Action Fund, 10,000 people a year die from asbestos-caused diseases the United States, including one out of every 125 American men who die over the age of 50. [18] The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has no general ban on the use of asbestos. However, asbestos was one of the first hazardous air pollutants regulated under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act of 1970, and many applications have been forbidden by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). [19]

According to a September 2004 of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, asbestos is still a hazard for 1.3 million US workers in the construction industry and for workers involved in the maintenance of buildings and equipment. [20]

A Senate Subcommittee of the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee heard testimony on July 31, 2001, regarding the health effects of asbestos. Members of the public, doctors, and scientists called for the United States to join other countries in a ban on the product.[21]

Asbestos is not part of a ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) E 1527-05 Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (ESA). A Building Survey for Asbestos is considered an out-of-scope consideration under the industry standard ASTM 1527-05 Phase I ESA (see ASTM E 1527-05). ASTM Standard E 2356-04 should be consulted by the owner or owners' agent to determine which type of asbestos building survey is appropriate, typically either a baseline survey or a design survey of functional areas. Both types of surveys are explained in detail under ASTM Standard E 2356-04. Typically, a baseline survey is performed by an EPA (or State) licensed asbestos inspector. The baseline survey provides the buyer with sufficient information on presumed asbestos at the facility, often which leads to reduction in the assessed value of the building (due primarily to forthcoming abatement costs). Note: EPA NESHAP (National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Regulations must be consulted in addition to ASTM Standard E 2356-04 to ensure all statutory requirments are satisfied, ex. notification requirements for renovation/demolition. Asbestos is not a material covered under CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act ) innocent purchaser defense. In some instances, the U.S. EPA includes asbestos contaminated facilities on the NPL (Superfund). Buyers should be careful not to purchase facilities, even with a ASTM E 1527-05 Phase I ESA completed, without a full understanding of all the hazards in a building or at a property, without evaluating non-scope ASTM E 1527-05 materials, such as asbestos, lead, PCBs, mercury, radon, et al. A standard ASTM E 1527-05 does not include asbestos surveys as standard practice.

Civil litigation

The first lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers were brought in 1929. [22] Since then, many lawsuits have been filed. As a result of the litigation, manufacturers sold off subsidiaries, diversified, produced asbestos substitutes, and started asbestos removal businesses. [23] In June 1982, a retired boiler-maker, James Cavett, won a record award of $2.3 million compensatory and $1.5 million in punitive damages. [24]

The Manville Corporation, formerly the Johns-Manville Corporation, filed for reorganization and protection under the United States Bankruptcy Code in August 1982. At the time, it was the largest company ever to file bankruptcy, and was one of the richest. Manville was then 181st on the Fortune 500, but was the defendant of 16,500 lawsuits related to the health effects of asbestos. [25]

Johns-Manville was described by Ron Motley, a South Carolina attorney, as "the greatest corporate mass murderer in history." Court documents show that the corporation had a long history of hiding evidence of the ill effects of asbestos from its workers and the public. One of many examples is a memo from Johns-Manville's medical director to corporate headquarters[26]:

The fibrosis of this disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But, as long as the man is not disabled it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and the company can benefit by his many years of experience.

By the early 1990s, "more than half of the 25 largest asbestos manufacturers in the US, including Amatex, Carey-Canada, Celotex, Eagle-Picher Industries, Forty-Eight Insulations, Manville Corporation, National Gypsum, Standard Insulation, Unarco, and UNR Industries had declared bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy protects a company from its creditors." [27].

The future of asbestos civil litigation

Asbestos litigation is the longest, most expensive mass tort in U.S. history, involving more than 6,000 defendants and 600,000 claimants.[28] Current trends indicate that the rate at which people are diagnosed with the disease will likely increase though the next decade. Analysts have estimated that the total costs of asbestos litigation in the USA alone will eventually reach $200 billion. The amounts and method of allocating compensation have been the source of many court cases, and government attempts at resolution of existing and future cases.

The controversy over asbestos-related liability issues is reflected by recent press reports and the position taken by the American Bar Association.

United Kingdom

Guardian Unlimited reported a test-case ruling in 2005, that allowed thousands of workers to be compensated for pleural plaques. Diffuse or localised fibrosis of the pleura, or pleural plaques, is less serious than asbestosis or mesothelioma, but is also considered a disease closely linked to the inhalation of asbestos.[29] However, insurers claimed the plaques are "simply a marker for asbestos exposure rather than an injury." Mr Justice Holland rejected the insurers' arguments, and counsel for workers hailed the decision as a "victory that puts people before profits." [30]. However this decision was reversed on appeal to the Court of Appeal. On the 17th October 2007, the House of Lords confirmed the Court of Appeal's decision. Pleural plaques no longer constitute actionable injury in the UK.

Insurance companies allege that asbestos litigation has taken too heavy a toll on insurance and industry. A 2002 article in the British Daily Telegraph's Associate quoted Equitas, the reinsurance vehicle which assumed Lloyd's of London's liabilities, which argued that asbestos claims were "greatest single threat to Lloyd's of London's existence." [31]. Of note is that Lloyd's of London had been sued for fraud by its investors, who claimed Lloyd's misrepresented pending losses from asbestos claims.[32].

A recent turning point has recently come about involving the case of a young 45 year old mother from Southsea, Hampshire, who was exposed to asbestos from her grandfather’s work clothes and now suffers from mesothelioma. As a result, Michelle Campbell has received over £140,000 in compensation for her pain and suffering from the Ministry of Defence, highlighting that the legacy of asbestos will continue and is now capable of affecting a third generation of victims – the grandchildren of former dockyard workers and other men who worked with the deadly substance throughout their careers. [33].


In May 2006, the House of Lords ruled that compensation for asbestos injuries should be reduced where responsibility could not be attached to a single employer. [34] Critics, including trade unions, asbestos groups and Jim Wallace, former justice minister, have condemned the ruling. They said it overturned the traditional Scottish law to such cases, and was a breach of natural justice. As a result of this outcry, the ruling has been overturned by Section three of the Compensation Act 2006.

United States

Asbestos-related cases increased significantly on the U.S. Supreme Court docket after 1980. The Court has dealt with several asbestos-related cases since 1986. Two large class action settlements, designed to limit liability, came before the Court in 1997 and 1999. Both settlements were ultimately rejected by the Court because they would exclude future claimants, or those who later developed asbestos-related illnesses. See Amchem Products v. Windsor et al and Ortiz v. Fireboard Corp.These rulings addressed the 20-50 year latency period of serious asbestos-related illnesses.

Congress is still considering legislation from 2005 entitled the "Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005". The Act would establish a $140 billion trust fund to supplant litigation as a means to compensate victims of asbestos and limit liability. On April 26, 2005, Dr. Philip Landrigan, Professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and Chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount SInai School of Medicine, testified before the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary against this proposed legislation. He testified that many of the bill's provisions are unsupported by medicine and would unfairly exclude a large number of people who have become ill or died from asbestos: "The approach to the diagnosis of disease caused by asbestos that is set forth in this bill is not consistent with the diagnostic criteria established by the American Thoracic Society. If the bill is to deliver on its promise of fairness, these criteria will need to be revised." Also opposing the bill are the American Public Health Association and the Asbestos Workers Union.[35]

On June 14, 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee Committee approved an amendment to the Act which would allow victims of mesothelioma $1.1M within 30 days of their claim's approval.[36] This version would also expand eligible claimants to people exposed to asbestos from the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and to construction debris in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.[37]


The internet has become a highly competitive arena for firms trying to attract new clients. Pay-per-click costs on asbestos and mesothelioma keywords can exceed $65 per click [38] and continually rank as the most expensive keywords. [39] The potential payout for affiliates serving mesothelioma and asbestos ads has created a niche for spammers and webmasters [40] who target search engines.

Criminal prosecution

United States

W. R. Grace and Company

According to the US Department of Justice(DOJ), a federal grand jury indicted W. R. Grace and Company and seven top executives on Februarly 5, 2005 for its operations of a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana.[13] The indictment accused Grace of wire fraud, knowing endangerment of residents by concealing air monitoring results, obstruction of justice by interfering with an Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) investigation, violation of the Clean Air Act, providing asbestos materials to schools and local residents, and conspiracy to release asbestos and cover up health problems from asbestos contamination. The DOJ said 1,200 residents have developed asbestos-related diseases and some have died, and there could be many more injuries and deaths[14][15]

The conspiracy charges alone could result in a sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release, as well as a $1 million fine per violation by the company.[16]

On June 8, 2006, a federal judge dismissed the conspiracy charge of "knowing endangerment" because some of the defendant officials had left the company before the 5 year statute of limitations had begun to run. The wire fraud charge was dropped by prosecutors in March.

In an appellate decision in September, 2007, the government was given leave to resinstate the criminal charges [17]. The same appellate court had earlier, in July, overturned an evidentiary finding that impaired the government's case[18]. The company has already filed notice of a request for a rehearing, and the trial is now expected to begin in the winter of 2007 or spring of 2008[19].

Environmental - Asbestos Removal and Cleanup

Asbestos abatement (removal of asbestos) has become a thriving industry in the United States. Strict removal and disposal laws have been enacted to protect the public from airborne asbestos. The Clean Air Act requires that asbestos be wetted during removal and strictly contained, and that workers wear safety gear and masks. Over the last ten years, the federal government has prosecuted dozens of violations of the Act and violations of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) related to the operations. Often these involve contractors who hire undocumented workers without proper training or protection to illegally remove asbestos. Contractors who ignore safety regulations in removing asbestos commit an environmental crime that exposes countless people to potentially fatal and excruciatingly painful lung diseases.[20]

W. R. Grace and Company faces fines of up to $280 million dollars, for polluting the town of Libby, Montana. Libby was declared a Superfund disaster area in 2002, and the EPA has spent $54 million dollars in cleanup. Grace was ordered by a court to reimburse the EPA for cleanup costs, but the bankruptcy court must approve any payments.[21]

On January 11, 2006, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., two of its employees and a contractor were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that they violated safety standards while removing asbestos from pipes in Lemon Grove, California. The defendants were charged with five charges of conspiracy, violating asbestos work practice standards and making false statements. If convicted the workers face five-year prison terms and a $250,000 fine for each violation. San Diego Gas & Electric faces fines of $2.5 million dollars.

On December 12, 2004, New York father and son owners of asbestos abatement companies were sentenced to the longest federal jail sentences for environmental crimes in U.S. history. The crimes related to a 10 year scheme to illegally remove asbestos. They were convicted on all 18 counts of conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act; violations of the Clean Air Act, and RICO. The RICO count included obstruction of justice, money laundering, mail fraud and bid rigging, all related to the asbestos cleanup. The son was sentenced to 25 years in prison, forfeiture of $2 million in illegal proceeds from RICO activities and restitution of $23,039,607 to his victims. His father was sentenced to 17-1/2 years in prison, forfeiture of $1.7 million in illegal proceeds and restitution of $22,875,575 to his victims.[41]

On April 2, 1998, three men were indicted in a conspiracy to use homeless men for illegal asbestos removal from an aging Wisconsin manufacturing plant. Then US Attorney General Janet Reno said, "Knowingly removing asbestos improperly is criminal. Exploiting the homeless to do this work is cruel."

Other similar cases can be found at the DOJ website.


  1. ^ [1] Medical News Today. 16 September 2004. Retrieved 15 April 2006.
  2. ^ Casarrett & Doull's Toxicology (2001), pp 520-522
  3. ^ [2][3]. EPA publication on Asbestos. Retrieved 15 April 2006.
  4. ^ Murray, H.M., Departmental Committee for Compensation for Industrial Diseases. Cd 3495 and 3496. London, His Majesty's Stationary Office, 1907, p.127
  5. ^ Cooke, W.E., Fibrosis of the lungs due to the inhalation of asbestos dust. B.M.J., 2, 147, 1924.
  6. ^ Selikoff, I.J. et al, The occurrence of asbestosis among insulation workers in the United States. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences., 132, pp139-155, 1966
  7. ^ Muscat JE, Wynder EL (1991). "Cigarette smoking, asbestos exposure, and malignant mesothelioma". Cancer Research 51 (9): 2263-7. PMID 2015590 [4].
  8. ^ Maule, Magnani, Dalmasso, Mirabelli, Merletti & Biggeri, "Modeling Mesothelioma Risk Assoicated with Environmental Asbestos Exposure," Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol 115, No 7, July 2207, pg 1066
  9. ^ [5]Pepperdine Law Review, Vol. 31, No. 33, 2004
  10. ^ [6]Hansard, official verbatim transcript of proceedings in the British Parliament
  11. ^ Article in (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) [7]
  12. ^ Washington Post article: Canada's Deadly Export [8]
  13. ^
  14. ^ Baltimore Sun
  15. ^ USA Today
  16. ^ Baltimore Sun
  17. ^ Spokesman Review
  18. ^ Washington Post
  19. ^ The Missoulian
  20. ^ NY Times (restricted article)
  21. ^ Baltimore Sun

Further reading

Brodeur, Paul,Outrageous Misconduct.New York, Pantheon, 1985.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Asbestos_and_the_law". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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