Pioneer Killer Products: Asbestos, Lead, and Tobacco

Stephen H. Unger

August, 14, 2010

Saber-toothed tigers, quicksand, rocky mountain spotted fever; the world has always been a dangerous place. Since the earliest days of civilization, humans, while learning to use all sorts of materials to improve their lives, have inadvertently added new hazards. These have often been of a subtle nature, not immediately apparent.

Particularly in modern times, serious conflicts have arisen between the interests of corporations that have introduced profitable new materials or technologies and the welfare of the general public. Consider a new product that has been introduced, is selling well, and has proved to be profitable. Suppose that there are indications that some serious harm to consumers or to the environment may be associated with the product. The corporations marketing the product will probably investigate the problem, but if they find indications that the problem may be significant, with no obvious, low cost, solution, their most likely reaction will be to try to cover up.

Current examples of this phenomenon include cell phones[UngerCell] and many pharmaceutical products. Below, I sketch the stories of 3 important historical examples of killer (literally) products whose lethal nature was at first denied, but which is now generally accepted. In a follow-up article, I will discuss how this general problem is becoming increasingly acute, with no serious movement to deal with it effectively.


Lead was one of the first metals exploited by humans. The ancient Greeks, and then the Romans, used it for many purposes, including dishes, water and wine pitchers, and water pipes, and for glazing glass and ceramics. Its pernicious aspect was not immediately evident (as is the case for many other useful materials), but serious problems were recognized almost two thousand years ago [WikLeadPois].

Lead is toxic to the nervous system, bones, and to many organs including the heart, kidneys, and intestines. While early users of certain products suffered to some degree, the principal victims were miners and workers continuously exposed to it in various forms. (Those killed by lead bullets are in a different category!)

During the late nineteenth century, lead became an important ingredient in many kinds of paint, including house-paint. This exposed many people, including employees of paint manufacturers, and house painters. There were, and continue to be, serious problems caused by peeling and crumbling of old layers of lead paint on apartment walls. The resulting contaminated dust is a principal pathway into the bodies of tenants, particularly children. The use of lead in solder, welding, storage batteries, and in print type was another important source of problems in the workplace.

The development of tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) to improve substantially the efficiency of piston type engines by making it possible to increase compression ratios, was a brilliant technical achievement. It was carried out by Thomas Midgley, a mechanical engineer and chemist, in a General Motors research lab directed by Charles Kettering. GM, in partnership with Standard Oil, formed the Ethyl Corporation to manufacture TEL [Bellows]. Unfortunately, the use of leaded gasoline produced a significant increase in the lead content of our environment (air, water, and earth) and subsequently in our blood.

Despite the fact that the harmful effects of lead were well understood from the outset, automotive, chemical, and oil companies successfully obscured the situation and staved off efforts to stop the production and use of leaded gasoline for decades. The use of lead in automotive gasoline was finally phased out in the US between 1976 and 1986, with more benign methods for achieving high octane ratings replacing it. The result was impressive. A 1994 study indicated that the average concentration of lead in the blood of the U.S. population dropped from 13 µg/dL in 1976 to 3 µg/dL in 1991 [SciProg].

Altho lead paint was finally banned in 1977, it continues to be a problem due to the legacy of old residential buildings in which it was used. Children are still harmed, for example by dust on floors of apartments being renovated. Acute doses of lead, such as are encountered by workers in certain occupations, can be fatal. But even very low levels of lead in the blood can measurably degrade mental capacity and even cause behavioral problems. Other harmful effects include cardiovascular disease and stroke.


Asbestos is a common mineral occurring naturally in six chemically different forms, all sharing a number of very useful properties. They are chemically very stable, are excellent electrical and thermal insulators, and are highly resistant to heat and fire. Asbestos generally is in the form of high tensile strength fibers. In the time of the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, asbestos was mined and used to weave cloth for such applications as towels, napkins, carpets, and some forms of clothing [WikiAsbestos].

Starting in the nineteenth century, the uses of asbestos expanded greatly. Applications included building insulation, pipe insulation in buildings and ships, interior fire doors, electrical insulation in hot plates and electric irons, automotive brake linings and clutches, acoustic ceilings, gaskets, and fireproof clothing for firefighters.

Even in ancient times it was understood that inhaling asbestos dust was very dangerous. A key indication was the short life spans of slaves who mined or worked with asbestos. Modern research has identified several diseases caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. These include asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other forms of lung and laryngeal cancers. There are also ovarian, gastrointestinal, and other cancers that can result from exposure to asbestos. It generally takes years, sometimes a few decades for these diseases to mature fully as fibers accumulate in lung linings and lungs. It is estimated that over 10,000 Americans die annually from these asbestos-induced diseases.

Obviously death is the most dramatic outcome, but far more people lead lives of misery due to severely damaged lungs that make each breath a struggle. The resulting weakness doubtless leads to many deaths attributed to other causes, such as heart disease. The victims of asbestos, particularly those who die, are mostly those exposed in the workplace, such as miners, and insulation installers. Asbestos-related diseases eventually killed over 60,000 of the roughly 4 million people who worked in American shipyards during WWII [Burke]. Families of those who work with asbestos are also exposed via dust on work-clothes, and the air in the neighborhood of certain factories may be polluted with asbestos fibers. Homes with asbestos insulation can also be hazardous if the insulation is disturbed enough to produce airborne fibers. So asbestos is more than just a workplace hazard.

The process by which asbestos harmed people was well understood by the early twentieth century, certainly by 1930. The refusal, in the 1920s, of some American and Canadian insurance companies to sell life-insurance to asbestos workers made it clear that the danger was not a bugaboo dreamed up by chronic malcontents [LaDou].

But information about the harm done by asbestos was systematically suppressed by Johns-Manville and other companies in the asbestos industry. They funded "research" projects designed to obscure the situation and, via political pressure, succeeded in delaying regulatory action until the 1970s. In 1989 the EPA, under the Clean Air Act, acted to phase our asbestos in the US. But this was overturned by a 1991 appeals court decision that was not appealed, so there is now a patchwork of regulations that still allows substantial use of asbestos.

There are on-going asbestos injury lawsuits in the US involving many hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs and many thousands of defendant companies. Hundreds of billions of dollars are involved. Many companies associated with asbestos went bankrupt, including Johns-Manville, the largest company in the field (it emerged from bankruptcy in 1988, six years after entry). Asbestos litigation is complicated by the long latency period between exposure and the appearance of symptoms. Federal legislation was passed in an effort to bring order into a chaotic situation. Asbestos is banned in the European Union (2006) and in many other countries, including Australia.


As a boy, the idea of breathing in smoke seemed crazy to me. I was clearly on the right track here, but some, more sophisticated, people find that, after enduring the initial discomfort, they get a lot of pleasure out of tobacco smoke. Eventually, for many, this pleasure becomes an addiction. Fortunately, nobody has a craving to inhale asbestos fibers, and ingesting lead dust is also not habit forming.

Tobacco is the emperor of harmful products. The low production cost of cigarettes made it possible to offer them at prices affordable even by 14-year old children. Decades after its deadly nature has been clearly established, it continues to take a toll of well over 400,000 premature deaths annually in the US, and over 3 million worldwide (a number that is increasing as smoking rates increase in China, India, and in many poor countries). This is in addition to many times these numbers suffering from debilitating diseases and diminished vitality. About half of all lifelong smokers die from smoking-related causes. On average, regularly smoking a pack-a-day reduces lifespan by about 13 years [WikiTobacco].

Cigarette smoking in the US became widespread around the start of the twentieth century, when annual consumption was about 54 cigarettes per capita. Widespread advertising and promotional campaigns, such as issuing cigarettes to WWI and WWII soldiers, boosted this number to a peak of 4259 in 1965. As a consequence of widespread revelations of the deadly nature of tobacco, increased cigarette sales taxes, restrictions on advertising, and widespread educational campaigns, the rate has fallen substantially, but was still 1691 in 2006.

The tobacco industry systematically fought, and continues to fight, to obscure and to suppress information about the harm caused by smoking. They employed high-powered public relations firms to orchestrate advertising campaigns that featured actors portraying physicians endorsing such innovations as cigarette filters (at least one made with asbestos!). They co-opt scientists via research grants and consulting, and lecturing fees to write articles casting doubt on work exposing various deleterious effects of smoking [Rampton]. Using their leverage as advertisers (before such advertising was banned) they exerted influence on the mass media to play down reports unfavorable to their cause and to feature material questioning the validity of research linking smoking to various diseases. They use political contributions and lobbyists to enlist politicians on their side. They subsidized the formation and operation of bogus public-interest groups to oppose the passage of laws such as those restricting smoking in public areas. Over a period of many decades they pioneered these and other techniques that have been refined further and are being used by producers of many other harmful products, [Koch].

The Big Picture

What can we learn from the history of lead, asbestos and tobacco? All three products are very useful, the first two in a variety of practical ways, the third as a source of pleasure. As a consequence, they became big profit sources for large corporations. In each case, an individual user is not likely to experience any immediate problems indicative of serious long-term harm. This can be clearly established only via careful research and large-scale studies.

Those with the most information and expertise required to carry out such investigations are generally affiliated with the companies producing and selling the products. But, identifying basic problems with products doing very well in the market place is not in the short-term interest of a company, and, as is well known, corporations are driven almost exclusively by short-term considerations--usually the next quarterly profit report.

So, instead of trying to identify and, where possible, remedy serious product problems, the natural response of a company is to deny the existence of the problem and try to prevent others from learning about and publicizing them [Michaels]. As mentioned above, tobacco companies developed many basic techniques for this purpose decades ago, and these have since been refined and expanded by corporations in other fields, particularly the pharmaceutical industry. For example, prominent physicians and scientists are lavishly paid by pharmaceutical companies to support their products in various ways [Carmichael], including the ghost writing of articles in scientific journals [Wilson].

An obvious role of government is to protect the public and workers against such harm [UngerReg]. Hence the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), etc. But, as corporations have strengthened their control of government, this role has been steadily eroded. Budgets of such agencies have been kept so low that their staffs are far too small. Politically appointed administrators often discourage overly enthusiastic professionals from taking their work too seriously. The laws under which regulatory agencies operate often restrict their power to the point where they cannot effectively carry out their missions.

The weakening of regulatory agencies has been taking place as the proliferation of new technology makes their work ever more important. At the same time, big corporations have been refining their techniques for circumventing the the residual efforts of the weakened agencies. This will be the subject of a follow-up article.


Stephen Unger, "Cell Phones: Not Definitely Dangerous?", Ends and Means Blog, June 19, 2008

WikLeadPois, "Lead poisoning", Wikipedia

SciProg, "A Brief History of Lead Regulation", Science Progress, November 30, 2008

Alan Bellows, "The Ethyl-Poisoned Earth" Damn Interesting, December 2007

WikiAsbestos, "Asbestos", Wikipedia

Joseph LaDou et al, "The Case for a Global Ban on Asbestos", Environmental Health Perspectives, July 1, 2010

Bill Burke, "Shipyards, a Crucible for Tragedy", The Virginian-Pilot, May 6, 2001

WikiTobacco, "Health effects of tobacco", Wikipedia

Wendy Koch and Kevin Johnson, "Government: Cover-up lasted 45 years", USA Today, 9/23/99

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, "Tobacco's Secondhand Science of Smoke-Filled Rooms", PR Watch, Volume 7, No. 3, Third Quarter 2004

David Michaels, "Doubt is Their Product", Oxford University Press, 2008

Clive Bates and Andy Rowell, "Tobacco Explained",

Stephen Unger, "Regulating the Invisible Hand: A Contradiction?",

Mary Carmichael, "Bitter Pills: Harvard Medical School and Big Pharma", Boston Magazine, 10/23/09

Duff Wilson, "Drug Maker Said to Pay Ghostwriters for Journal Articles ", NY Times, December 12, 2008

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