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Asbestos ...

Astounding Grace
Another U.S. Corporation Puts
Its Workers (and many others)
in Deadly Danger
 — Then Ducks Responsibility

UE News, July 2001 David Kotelchuck

In the early 1970s, as Americans became aware of the dangers of breathing asbestos dust, cities across the U.S. began to ban the spraying of buildings with products containing asbestos. Most fireproofing sprays for buildings at that time contained asbestos, and so many of the manufacturers, afraid of lawsuits, simply got out of the business.

But not W.R. Grace and Company. The company reformulated its Monokote fireproofing spray by removing the asbestos fibers they had been adding, and substituting about 30 percent of the mineral vermiculite. Grace then announced in a press release a "research breakthrough," that it had made a product which was "completely asbestos-free." By 1977 Monokote had risen from a relatively small market share to become America’s leading fireproofing material, according to a hard-hitting exposé published on the front page of the New York Times on July 9, 2001. Grace reported to the Times reporters that 60 to 80 percent of the 150,000 steel-frame building built during the 1970s and 1980s used Monokote!

Many construction workers, hearing that Monokote was "asbestos-free," stopped using the bulky respirators they had been using when spraying asbestos-containing materials. One retired sprayer from Andover, Mass., Harry Starratt, put it this way: "With the asbestos-free we wore paper masks. There was never supposed to be harm in it." (NY Times, 7/9/01)

The problem was, as UE NEWS readers and many other Americans now know, vermiculite does contain a form of asbestos, called tremolite. (See "The Sad Story of Libby, Montana" in the UE NEWS, May 2000.) Vermiculite mined and processed in the Grace-owned mine in Libby, Montana typically contained a few percent of tremolite, but the amounts varied by batch from negligible amounts to as high as 26 percent tremolite, according to later EPA estimates. As a result of this asbestos contamination, about 200 persons are estimated to have died of asbestos-related diseases in the Libby area alone by the year 2000, according to Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


How could Grace try to get away with calling Monokote asbestos-free, when it contained tremolite-asbestos contamination? Because the OSHA standard regulating asbestos does not cover materials which contain less than one percent by weight of asbestos, a provision which WR Grace actively lobbied for. Grace and others had argued that in real life you can’t achieve perfect purity in any product, so OSHA had to set some level of asbestos contamination as essentially harmless, and hence beneath regulatory concern.

But this one percent cut was too high to protect the miners in Libby, Montana, who processed so much ore each day that, even at a few percent contamination, about 10,000 pounds of asbestos dust were released into the air each day. (UE NEWS, 5/00) Will the one-percent level be low enough to protect workers who sprayed on fireproofing materials every day, all day for years? Harry Starratt doesn’t think so, and he is suing W.R. Grace for damage to his lungs. Mark White only wore a paper mask when he sprayed Monokote in 1975, since his father, then-Mayor Kevin White of Boston, had just outlawed asbestos spraying in the city. "It burns me that that’s the way this company acted," he told the Times recently (7/9/01). Even though he worked for only one summer a quarter of a century ago, White still has to wait another 15 years or so to see if he will develop any illness from it. Asbestos-related diseases take from 15 to 40 years to develop after first exposure.


During the 1970s and 1980s the company told OSHA and EPA that Monokote contained tremolite asbestos, but below the one-percent cutoff level. But workers, building owners and the general public were left completely in the dark. Thus in 1977, the Times reports, a high-level meeting of corporate officials decided that Grace employees were to tell users of Monokote and other vermiculite products that these were "non-asbestos products."

But within the industry word was getting out about the tremolite in Monokote. Competitors’ ads were alluding to it; some firms began dropping the product. Eventually in 1986 W.R. Grace started mentioning tremolite in the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Monokote. The then-Vice-President of one large architectural firm expressed his sense of betrayal when the change in the MSDS was noticed: "When Grace argued that ‘none’ meant ‘only a little,’ we said to them, ‘If that’s what you meant why didn’t you say it?" (NY Times, 7/9/01) Many of us would say: They were not saying it because they could make a lot of money that way.

Finally, in the early 1990s, W.R. Grace again reformulated Monokote by using vermiculite mined from other mines which contained much less or no asbestos. The Libby, Montana mine, from whose vermiculite the Monokote was previously made, was closed in 1990. The community there continues to cope with the fallout from the past 40 years of mining, and to pursue its many individual lawsuits against W.R. Grace. The federal EPA now says it is re-examining its one-percent threshold for regulating asbestos.

W.R. Grace, which as of last May faced 105,000 asbestos-related lawsuits across the country, may now face more lawsuits over the next four decades for its sales and advertising of Monokote. Grace is fighting its current lawsuits in the American corporate way: It filed for bankruptcy protection in April of this year. Many of the victims of its asbestos products will long be dead before their cases come up in court years from now — and their families may or may not pursue their cases.


Here is yet another case of bankruptcy abuse, practiced previously by Johns-Manville, Owens-Corning and other asbestos-industry companies. You might think that Congress, not to speak of the President, worried as they are about bankruptcy abuse, would look into this. After all, both the U.S. Senate and the House have overwhelmingly passed "Bankruptcy Reform" legislation during the present session of Congress, and the two bills are now in Conference Committee ironing out the differences between them. But these two bills have focused on two major items:

  1. Making it harder for individuals over their heads with credit card debt to declare bankruptcy, and

  2. Making it harder for small businesses to protect themselves through declaring bankruptcy (A small business in this context is one which has less than $3 million of debt. This covers 80 percent of all U.S. businesses which declare bankruptcy each year.)

Not a word about bankruptcy reform against large corporations which employ workers, kill them or make them ill, and then try to duck out of their mounting legal obligations because they wouldn’t have enough money left to make profits for their shareholders!

Where is President Bush’s compassion in facing this issue? He has praised the bills now passed by both Houses, and has said he will sign the bill coming out of the conference committee. In doing this, he is going after the little guys, the consumers and small businesses, and letting the morally derelict large corporations off scot-free.

Our union political action committees should tell the President: Veto the so-called Bankruptcy Reform bills (S420 and HR333). Send them back to Congress for the really needed reform bills to protect working people from big corporations which now use the bankruptcy laws to evade their legal and moral responsibilities to the workers they have harmed and even killed.

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