Insurers Knew About Asbestos Dangers, Reports Say

Documents Show Insurance Companies Aware of Asbestos-Related Diseases as Early as 1931

WASHINGTON, D.C.-November 14, 2003-Many insurance companies knew decades ago about the medical dangers posed by asbestos, but concealed that information from workers and the public, according to recent newspaper accounts (Sacramento Bee, November 9, 2003; Minneapolis Star Tribune, Washington Bureau, November 9, 2003, free registration required). For example, as early as 1931, a Metropolitan Life Insurance screening found that 42 of 195 Canadian asbestos miners had asbestosis, a severe respiratory disease caused by asbestos exposure, but the company never published the study. Dr. Anthony Lanza, Metropolitan Life's assistant medical director, even told Johns-Manville plant operators that there was no need to warn workers about asbestos hazards, according to company documents cited by the Star Tribune.

Metropolitan Life also minimized the seriousness of asbestosis in a U.S. report written in 1935. In the 1940s, it successfully squelched results of studies at the Saranac Laboratory in New York that linked asbestos exposure to lung cancer in mice. The record of Travelers Insurance is no better. Although it measured asbestos levels in factory air samples, and kept track of claims from workers who died or became ill from the substance, no public reports emerged from these figures, according to the news sources. Another insurance company, Liberty Mutual, monitored the use of asbestos in brakes and clutches in 1929. Liberty Mutual attributed death and illness to asbestos, but failed to report these findings.

The Star Tribune quoted from various internal insurance documents to highlight the insurance industry's knowledge of asbestos disease. "In 1900 medical research linked the mineral asbestos with asbestosis and 1935 brought the first direct linkage of asbestos to cancer," minutes of a 1976 meeting of the American Insurance Association said, according to the newspaper. An internal manual for Commercial Union Insurance Co., written in 1937, stated: "It is established that asbestos may cause disability and death, and that any well-defined case of asbestosis is very likely to progress to a fatal conclusion."

Lawsuits Charge Failure to Disclose Asbestos Exposure Hazards

Currently, thousands of lawsuits in Ohio and Texas charge insurers with concealing or negligently failing to disclose the medical hazards caused by asbestos. These lawsuits could test whether insurers can be held responsible if they fail to disclose knowledge that a policyholder's product is a health problem, the Star Tribune concluded.

Health experts and bioethicists also weighed in on the asbestos issue in the Sacramento Bee report. "At some point, when the bodies, the cancers and the failing lungs begin to pile up, you have got to take that information and move it out to public health authorities, government officials or doctors," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "...You should be letting people know that there is a massive public health problem, if you have any ethics at all." Dr. Henry Anderson, chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Department of Public Health, agreed, stating that the insurers "had a moral obligation [to warn], both from the standpoint of protecting the workers as well as the companies employing them."

Current Hatch Asbestos Bill Aids Insurers; Harms Asbestos Victims

Many occupations pose a high asbestos exposure risk. These include insulating, shipbuilding, construction, auto repair, mining, and railroad work. (See Many Industries at Risk for Asbestos Exposure). Asbestos has also been used in over 3,000 consumer products. An asbestos disease such as asbestosis or the cancer mesothelioma may take up to 40 years to develop. Insurers understand that the asbestos health problem is not fading away in the near future.

Hoping to stem the tide of asbestos lawsuits and lower their own liability, insurers have spent $1.02 million to promote the Hatch asbestos bill, S.B. 1125 (Rollcall, November 10, 2003). This legislation would set up a trust fund for asbestos victims, and provide compensation based on various asbestos disease categories. Asbestos claimants would be compensated at lower levels than they would be likely to receive within the court system, and would lose their rights to a trial by jury. Organized labor and various consumer groups say that the bill would benefit insurance companies and asbestos companies by decreasing their asbestos liabilities at the expense of asbestos victims.