Information on Railroad Asbestos and Cancer | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

U.S. railroads were among the leading users of asbestos insulation and brake components throughout the 20th century. The toxic, cancer-causing material could still be found on trains and in rail yards well into the 2000s because federal rules aimed at ending nearly all industrial and commercial uses of asbestos were issued with loopholes that allowed rail corporations to leave asbestos in place until components and buildings needed to be completely replaced.

To find and be exposed to asbestos, a railroad worker only needed to encounter a steam or diesel locomotive, a caboose or a rail car. The metal walls of each piece of rolling stock were stuffed with asbestos. The fire-resistant and heat-reducing material was also widely deployed in brake shoes and brake pads.

On top of that, each pipe and steam line was covered in asbestos, whether the line was in a locomotive or an administrative building. And because asbestos was everywhere, so were airborne asbestos fibers.

As insulation dried out, brakes were serviced and basic repairs were done, railroad workers breathed in fibers that never left their airways and caused irreversible damage to their lungs and other internal organs. All the while, rail corporations such as Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and their predecessors denied health risks, covered up evidence of the link between on-the-job exposures to asbestos and mesothelioma, and blamed everything but asbestos for retirees’ debilitating health problems.




What Railroad Executives Knew

Clear evidence that breathing in asbestos fibers damaged lung tissue and caused conditions such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and a host of other cancers emerged in the 1930s. By the 1970s, doctors employed by the railroads were recommending removal of asbestos from locomotives.

The advice was motivated, in part, by an explosion of deadly lug diseases among long-term and retired rail employees. Mesothelioma has a long latency period. Symptoms often do not appear until 20-30 years after asbestos fibers are inhaled.

At the same time, many people who work with and around asbestos never get sick at all. Plus, replacing asbestos would cost significant amounts of money.

These facts gave railroad executives a perverse incentive to, in essence, play Russian roulette. The bets were that they could prioritize short-term profits while only fatally harming some workers and counting on the workers who did develop occupational illnesses to die before they could file lawsuits under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act.

How Railroads Defended Themselves Against FELA Lawsuits

Personal injury and wrongful death attorneys representing employees quickly defeated the argument that rail corporations had no knowledge of long-term health risks from on-the-job exposures to asbestos. The companies then turned to alleging that long-term cigarette smoking was the real problem.

Science is definitely on the side of FELA lawsuit plaintiffs. The chemicals and components of cigarette smoke damage lung tissue and airways in ways that differ from asbestos fibers. A biopsy or autopsy distinctly shows when asbestos exposure led to a person’s illness.

Additionally, cigarette smoking increases the odds of developing mesothelioma by as much as 73-fold. This actually gave railroads more of a duty to reduce or eliminate asbestos exposures for their many workers who smoked heavily.

Railroads have gradually phased out asbestos, but former employees continue developing and dying from mesothelioma. All workers have the right to hold their employer accountable for endangering their life.