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Familiar Patterns of Man-made Disasters, Part 4 of 4: Common Traits

Posted on August 24th, 2017 by in Chemical R&D

Sina part 4

This post is the fourth in a series of four discussing avoidable disasters caused by human beings.  Of the four posts three described examples of disasters created by human beings: 1. Asbestos published July 17; 2. Smoking; and 3. Climate change.  Seeking unbridled profit is the driver of all three disasters.

Common Elements

  1. Something useful is discovered (rediscovered) or invented speaking to pent up demands at the right time.

Asbestos has been known for thousands of years.¬† While Greeks and Romans exploited the unique and beneficial properties of asbestos, they also documented its harmful effects on those who mined the silken material from stone quarries. Greek geographer Strabo noted a “sickness of the lungs” in slaves who wove asbestos into cloth. Roman historian Pliny the Elder described the use of a thin membrane from the bladder of a goat or lamb by the slave miners as an early respirator in an attempt to protect them from inhaling the harmful asbestos fibers.

The tobacco plant has grown in the Americas since 6000 B.C.  Indian tribes have consumed tobacco for medicinal and religious purposes for two millennia.  Tobacco was viewed as a cure-all medicine for all pains and aches including dressing wounds and toothache. In 1492 the American Indians offered Christopher Columbus dried tobacco leaves as a gift.  Ships travelling between Europe and America brought tobacco to Europe where the plant grew well.  In the 17th century some of the dangerous effects of smoking tobacco began to be realized. In 1610 Sir Francis Bacon noted that trying to quit smoking was really hard!  Nicotine creates a passing sensation of pleasure by temporarily raising dopamine levels in the body.  Human desire for pleasure is endless even if it is using harmful means.

Coal has been known since 3500 B.C. (in China) but its rocky nature has made it difficult to mine and to transport.  When there was shortage of firewood in Britannia in the fifteenth century, coal began to become more common.  The invention of steam locomotive and railroad was a break for transportation of coal, which also fueled the steam engines.  Oil flowing to the ground surface and natural gas had been burnt for thousands of years.  Use of petroleum-derived liquid and gas was minor until the 19th Century.  The era of global petroleum exploration and consumption began in 1859 when Bissell and Drake drilled a producing oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania.

  1. Commercial interests realize the coincidence of the new discovery/invention with pent-up demands

In the 19th century insulation materials were required for steam lines in locomotives and for buildings.  There was a need for fireproof insulation and none of today’s man-made materials existed then.  Asbestos was a highly versatile fibrous material with remarkable properties including chemical resistance, mold resistance, inflammability, insulation and strength, all which were needed in the industry.

H W. Johns discovered the potential for the business value of asbestos and formed the Johns Company in New York in 1858, at the age 21 Johns Co. was an example of entrepreneurship leading to immense success and wealth in the US in the nineteenth century. Similar companies were formed in Europe and elsewhere.  Mr. Johns died at the age 61 from a pulmonary condition believed to have been asbestosis.  In 1901, Johns Company merged with the Manville Covering Company thus was born Johns Manville Corp.

Taking tobacco from America to Europe was followed by the introduction of the plant to the rest of the world.  In time commercial concerns took note of the profit potential of manufacturing, marketing and selling tobacco products.  The repeat nature of the smoking business promised lucrative profits because addicted customers returned for more.  By the 18th century tobacco became widespread and a whole industry was formed to supply the growing consumption.  Cigarette manufacturers built faster machines that reduced cigarette cost thus made it affordable for more people.

Tobacco companies launched sophisticated marketing campaigns advertising in every medium to normalize and glamorize smoking. The Marlboro Man and Joe Camel were created to target specific demographics; the latter aimed at children.  Celebrities smoked on television and in movies.  Politicians smoked in the United States Congress even during hearings.  Governments taxed tobacco and cigarette sales, a boon for raising new funds.  Some governments took outright ownership of tobacco business thus banking the profits and the taxes.  Nicotine addiction brought businesses and governments immense riches.

Petroleum was distilled into a variety of liquid fuels and gaseous products both easier to transport and use than coal.¬† It did not take long for oil to attract the attention of ‚Äúbig money‚ÄĚ because the world was ready for a more user-friendly fuel.¬† Shortly after Drake‚Äôs well, in 1870, John D. Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company.¬† ¬†Availability of liquid and gas fuels had a revolutionary impact on raising the standards of living of society.¬† Many new devices were invented including automobiles, 90% of which are still fueled by oil products.¬† Standard Oil Company grew large to the point of becoming dominant in the oil market.¬† The Company was later found to be a ‚Äúmonopoly‚ÄĚ and was dissolved into dozens of companies, some of which include Exxon, Chevron and BP.

  1. Early and late warnings about the downside of the new discovery/invention are ignored and opposed.

In case of asbestos there were plenty of fore warnings about the dangers of inhalation, dating back to the antiquity.  The ancient Roman scholar Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) noted the slaves who mined and worked with asbestos became ill.  In 1918, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report revealed abnormally high risk of early death among asbestos workers.  In 1947, Dr. Merewether, a well-known researcher, published the first clinical examination of hundreds of workers in the asbestos industry. He found one out of four workers suffered from asbestosis.  Researchers reported, in 1942, on the high occurrence of lung cancer in building trade workers and the likely cause being asbestos.  In 1964, Dr. Selikoff at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York confirmed widespread disease among asbestos workers and family members who lived with them.  The industry reaction was to resist and fight back against the threat to its lucrative business.

Smoke causes an unpleasant sensation in the eyes, nose, throat and the lungs. Yet cigarette manufacturers were able to convince hundreds of millions of people that smoking was harmless, chic and cool.  After all, movie actors, politicians and even some sports heroes did it!  Information indicating smoking caused illness was available as early as the seventeenth century.  During the 1920s, the first medical reports linking smoking to lung cancer began to appear but made no impact on smoking business.  The power of advertising by cigarette manufacturers suppressed publication of negative information.

Medical reports published in the 1950s and 1960s confirmed tobacco caused a range of serious diseases including lung cancer.  Not only did the industry not heed the message of the studies, the largest tobacco companies in the US colluded to plan a united response.  The outcome was a far-reaching strategy to refute the ever-growing evidence using advertisements, white papers, press releases and corporate schmoozing with popular science writers and journalists.  That campaign was a success, based on the fact that cigarette consumption in the US continued to grow throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Global warming or climate change is not a new discovery.¬† Scientists first learnt in the 19th century that carbon dioxide and some atmospheric gases cause a ‚Äúgreenhouse effect‚ÄĚ which raises the Earth‚Äôs temperature. At the dawn of the 20th century the Swedish scientist Arrhenius postulated that some day emissions from industrial activity could cause a global warming.¬† In 1938, G.S. Callendar argued that the level of carbon dioxide was climbing and raising global temperatures.¬† The fossil fuel industry first ignored and then fought against any notion of global warming and climate change.

Oil companies have funded studies to counter the existing scientific evidence of climate change, even resorted to disinformation campaigns; opposed efforts to reduce carbon emissions; undermined international climate talks; and obstructed government and private initiatives to convert away from fossil fuels.  ExxonMobile didn’t just understand the science, the company actively engaged with it.  In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched an ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models.

  1. The toll builds up, litigation begins and finally the slow wheels of justice begin to turn.

In the absence of government and business action on the harm done by asbestos, smoking and global warming, individuals resort to the judiciary for assistance.  The first well-known attempt to make asbestos companies pay compensation for asbestos exposure is the 1924 case of Nellie Kershaw in England who passed away at age 33 after seven years working with asbestos.  Kershaw’s case became the basis on which the first asbestos regulations were passed in England in the 1930s. In the U.S., Anna Pirskowski filed the earliest known asbestos-related lawsuit against her employer Johns-Manville Corporation in 1929 though she was not the only one trying to get compensation for asbestos-related injuries.  Pirskowsi’s lawsuit was thrown out in 1934.

The increased awareness of the dangers of asbestos and the new rules on class action lawsuits caused the number of asbestos-related claims to skyrocket in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.  Johns-Manville Co. was forced to settle so many claims that in 1982 Johns-Manville filed for bankruptcy, the largest in the US at the time.  Bankruptcy proceedings, included creation of an asbestos trust in 1988 to pay future claims rising from asbestos exposure.  It continues to pay claims to date.

When the first reports emerged linking cigarettes to cancer in the 1950s, plaintiffs began suing cigarette manufacturers.¬† Tobacco manufacturers responded in full force, fighting each lawsuit and refusing to settle out of court. They relied on several defense strategies, arguing that tobacco was not harmful to smokers, smokers’ cancer was caused by other factors and smokers assumed the risk of cancer when they decided to smoke.¬† The tobacco companies prevailed in all the early lawsuits.

In the 1990s, plaintiffs began to have limited success in tobacco lawsuits, partly because some cigarette company documents were leaked showing the companies were aware of the addictive nature of tobacco and its cancer links.  The first big win for plaintiffs in a tobacco lawsuit occurred in February 2000, when a California jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $51.5 million to a California smoker with inoperable lung cancer.

Around this time, more than 40 states sued the tobacco companies under state consumer protection and antitrust laws.  In November 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states and four of the largest tobacco companies agreed to settle the state cases.  In recent years, several key court decisions have paved the way for a number of individual lawsuits against tobacco companies and have opened the door for class action lawsuits involving light cigarettes.

Global warming and climate change law suites are fairly recent and have not come to fruition yet.  In 2011 Five individual teenagers, and two non-profit organizations representing young people partnered with Our Children’s Trust to file a federal lawsuit that reached U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.  Similarly the Court did not grant the motion by Kivalina’s (Native Alaskan village) suite against oil companies.

Oil companies are aware of the trajectory of the past litigation in which societal changes over time brought about judicial verdicts against the defendants in asbestos and cigarette cases.¬† They sense the looming risk to their business.¬† For instance Chevron Corp admitted it could be the subject of ‚Äúgovernmental investigations and, potentially, private litigation‚ÄĚ because of its role in causing global warming (Source: I. Johnston, The Independent, March 3, 2017).¬† For now the oil companies have been successful in fighting back against lawsuits, as was the case with the asbestos and smoking suppliers for a period of time.¬† At some point the society turned against those industries and required curtailments of their business practices and compensation of the victims.¬† Future will show whether oil companies will continue to escape the predicament of asbestos and cigarette suppliers.

  1. Lessons unlearned and learned

Profit is a positive and powerful incentive that drives business activity and entrepreneurship.  Yet the drive for profit must be restrained by the right values.  Consideration of the well being of human beings and the Earth’s environment in establishing genuine business values would serve any business well.  When such values are absent or unenforced, governments promulgate laws that usually come after harm has been done.  The judiciary enters the picture as a last resort when business practices and the laws have been insufficient in preventing harm done by unbridled profiteering.  There may still be time for the oil industry to change directions to modify its business model based on true concern for well being of the humans and the Earth.

Nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize all aspects of our lives.  In the past 30 years there has been numerous inventions of innovative and practical applications of nanotechnology, some which would revolutionize human life.  Yet commercialization of applications using nano-size particles requires safe material handling to prevent human and environmental exposure.  Nanotechnology is an area where lessons of the past seem to have restrained hasty commercialization.  Emphasis has been placed on safety at all phases of research, development and commercialization of nanotechnology.  Let’s hope other industries behave similarly.

Readers can find the sources of information in the first three posts in this series.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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