Like many manufacturers of building materials and chemicals, Georgia-Pacific was a top supplier to the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. The products being supplied contained asbestos, which was precisely what the military ordered thanks to the amazing heat-resistant properties the mineral exhibited. Because of the widespread use of asbestos-containing products (ACMs) in the armed forces, thousands of members of the military, and others that worked in military construction and shipbuilding, were exposed to asbestos. This was before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared war on asbestos-containing products and the companies that used it in manufacturing.
Today, asbestos is no longer revered for its heat-resistant properties. Instead, the mineral is feared because it is the only known cause of an aggressive form of cancer – mesothelioma.
As such, asbestos is banned in roughly 55 countries and partially banned in the U.S., making the manufacture and distribution of ACMs difficult. Most companies have stopped using the mineral altogether, including Georgia-Pacific (GP).
Unfortunately, by the time GP ceased using asbestos, it was already too late. GP’s joint compound – a putty-like building material which contained the cancer-causing mineral – hasn’t been used in more than 30 years, but it is still at the center of an estimated 60,000 asbestos legal claims against the company.
Joint Compound Banned, Irreversible Damage Surfaces Decades Later
In 1978, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned Georgia-Pacific’s joint compound, which was marketed under the name “Ready-Mix,” along with all other asbestos-containing joint compounds. Georgia-Pacific stated that it fully supported the ban, but says it ceased using asbestos in its product in 1977, and promptly switched to a safer substitute. However, before the switch, GP’s products contained between 2% and 7% chrysotile (white) asbestos. It is now known that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure – of any type.
It wasn’t until the new millennium that former construction workers, members of the military, and others began coming forward after exhibiting symptoms of asbestos exposure, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, tightening in the chest, persistent cough, and blood (coughed up from the lungs). Thousands of these workers, with the help of doctors, legal teams, and family and friends, traced their asbestos exposure back to Ready-Mix and other similar products.
Georgia-Pacific Launches Research Program as Liability Soars
Around 2005, as cases of asbestos-related diseases began to mount, Georgia-Pacific launched a “secret” $6 million research program to help defend itself against the legal claims by construction workers, former members of the military, and others. In 2006, the company hired a toxicologist to oversee animal testing, along with two consulting firms – Exponent and Environ – in order to “gauge the accuracy of decades-old studies, like those done by Mt. Sinai, showing high fiber counts associated with the sanding and sweeping of joint compound.”
Exponent was paid $3.3 million and Environ $1.5 million by Georgia-Pacific. Ultimately, after serious speculation about “fraud” and “junk science” and rulings against the company and its research by a New York appeals court, the findings were never used as a defense by Georgia-Pacific. In April 2005, Georgia-Pacific was taken private after being acquired by Koch Industries for $21 billion. There are no reports on how many of the 60,000 cases against Georgia-Pacific are still pending, but the total amount of liability is estimated at $1 billion.
- Georgia-Pacific GP.com
- National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer.gov
- The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) Publicintegrity.org
- United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) EPA.gov
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) CPSC.gov
- Wolfram Research Wolfram.com
- Photo: Tony Webster (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons