Switching from asbestos-containing brake pads to those made without asbestos would have cost Ford Motor Company $1.25 a car to protect its workers, but this cost was deemed too "severe" by a 1971 company memo opposing a state ban.
Quotes like these from industry's shameful asbestos history serve as stark reminders of how easy it is for companies to put profits ahead of people. Corporations that manufactured and used asbestos knew for decades it was highly toxic and could result in death for those exposed, but hid that information both from workers and from the public.
Today, the risks of asbestos are better known, but it is still not banned and its deadly effects persist. A recent report by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund estimates nearly 4,000 Tennessee residents perished from asbestos-triggered diseases between 1999 and 2013 — many of them poisoned on the job. Veterans are among those hardest hit. While veterans make up roughly 8 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 30 percent of those who succumb to mesothelioma, a crippling, almost always fatal disease caused only by asbestos exposure.
Even now, companies try to avoid shouldering the cost of asbestos injury, and too many sufferers, in order to see that their families are taken care of after they die, are forced to spend the last months of their lives fighting the corporations that poisoned them.
But the industry wants more. Today, asbestos-linked corporations are pouring millions of dollars into a state-by-state lobbying campaign to escape responsibility for actions that cut short the lives of up to 15,000 Americans each year.
Asbestos legislation introduced in the Tennessee Legislature at the behest of industry (HB 2234/SB 2062) is promoted as ensuring fairness for companies, but its real effect would be to erect roadblocks making it much harder, sometimes impossible, for workers disabled or dying from asbestos disease to receive just compensation through the courts.
These bills would give asbestos companies the authority to impose layer after layer of delay, with many victims dying from their illnesses before their day in court. They would deny plaintiffs important opportunities to seek relevant information from defendants, and would likely lead to the dismissal of many asbestos cases before a single courtroom appearance.
Six states have already adopted similar legislation, and it is moving through legislatures in a number of others with far too little public discussion. The bill in the Tennessee House could advance during a key hearing scheduled next week.
Asbestos poses a significant risk to thousands of people in Tennessee. We should celebrate the fact that asbestos use by various industries has decreased since health risks were exposed, but asbestos can still be found in factories, schools, homes and elsewhere. Rather than helping the industry evade responsibility, our representatives should be pushing proposals that might actually help Tennesseans avoid exposure.
This quiet campaign, if allowed to succeed, would allow the asbestos industry to escape responsibility while too many of our fellow Tennesseans labor for their last breaths.