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Thursday, November 7, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Asbestos in history

Benjamin Franklin, American patriot, inventor and wit, carried a purse made of fire-retardant asbestos, hopeful that his money wouldn’t burn a hole in his pocket. The purse is in a British museum.

Henry Ward Johns, founder of Johns-Manville, once the world’s largest maker of asbestos products, died in 1898 of “dust phthisis pneumonitis,” a medical euphemism for asbestosis. Citing asbestos claims, his namesake company sought bankruptcy protection from creditors in 1982. At the time, it was No. 181 on the Fortune 500 list and the richest firm to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

Union Carbide, according to court documents, suggested during the 1960s that Kimberly-Clark would save $174,000 a year using asbestos as a softening agent for Kleenex. Kimberly-Clark, a defendant in more than 100 asbestos lawsuits, denies it used the potentially toxic fiber in facial tissues. Records show that Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical, sold asbestos to other paper companies, including Georgia-Pacific, Scott Paper and Weyerhaeuser.

Johns-Manville at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York sponsored a pavilion that featured a giant Asbestos Man who touted the wonders of the miracle mineral and its “service to humanity.” A more sinister version of Asbestos Man appeared in comic books in the early 1960s. He dueled the Human Torch, one of the Fantastic Four superheroes. Asbestos Man was immune to the Torch’s flame but eventually died of asbestosis, chronic scarring of the lungs.

Margaret Hamilton, who portrayed Miss Gulch and her evil alter ego the Wicked Witch of the West in the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz,” wielded a burning broom made of asbestos. Although the witch later melted, her broom didn’t.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in June proposed legislation to ban asbestos, which is regulated but still legal in the United States. Her bill mirrored regulations imposed in 1989 by the Environmental Protection Agency but overturned on appeal by a federal court. The fibers are still used in roofing products, gaskets and brake pads.

Asbestos use in the United States grew exponentially during World War II, spurred by the military, which insulated and coated boilers, turbines and pipes of its burgeoning Navy fleet with the material because it could withstand high temperatures and corrosion. The fleet grew from about 400 vessels in 1939 to 6,700 in 1945.

Doctors are monitoring rescue workers and survivors of the terror attacks in New York for a respiratory ailment that has developed from breathing the toxin-laden air near Ground Zero. When the 110-story twin towers disintegrated, their collapse kicked up clouds of lung-piercing, microscopic fragments of glass and asbestos, which served as a fire retardant on lower-level steel beams. The ailment is known as the “World Trade Center cough.”
— Newhouse News Service

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