History of Railroads’ Use of Asbestos and Mesothelioma | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

U.S. railroad companies used asbestos-containing materials for most of the 20th century despite knowing that the products put their employees at high risk for lung damage and deadly cancers.

As harsh as that statement seems, solid and growing historical evidence shows that rail companies joined with asbestos producers to take every opportunity to cover up scientific findings about dangers, to block workplace safety rules intended to protect workers and members of the public, and to continue using the toxic and hazardous materials as long as possible. The complete story is too involved to recount here, but a good introduction comes from this British documentary that is available in sections on YouTube.


Focusing on the experiences of factory workers in England, The Evil Dust: The History of Asbestos points out that industrial safety inspectors initially raised red flags about exposure to dust containing asbestos fibers in 1900. The first official finding that lung damage caused by breathing in the material–a condition called asbestosis–was made in 1926. That led to the government of the United Kingdom in 1931 passing legislation to make employers liable for asbestos-related occupational illnesses.

While that law denied coverage to almost every person who used factory-made products containing asbestos, it at least represented more than anything the U.S. government did until the early 1970s. No industrial or commercial use of asbestos was restricted in the United States before 1973. That year, rules to limit the material to a very few special applications emerged. These rules amounted to a de facto ban on asbestos by the mid-1980s, but no products containing asbestos were ordered off the market. The dangerous fibers remained everywhere, only needing to be removed in the safest way possible when a machine was decommissioned or a building got renovated or torn down.

Rail Companies Used Asbestos Everywhere

Which brings us to the particular case of the U.S. railroad industry. Trains were literally stuffed with asbestos from the late 1800s to almost the turn of the 21st century. A short list of items installed on locomotives, rail cars and trucks (i.e., wheels and brakes) made with asbestos includes the following:

  • Heat shields for steam boilers and diesel engines
  • Insulation inside walls and ceilings
  • Heating and cooking stove covers
  • Gaskets
  • Caulk
  • Wallboards
  • Floor tiles
  • Clutches
  • Brake linings
  • Brake shoes

Even cement railroad ties, sealing compound and concrete rail beds often contained asbestos. The material was unavoidable for machinists, trackmen, engineers, fireman, conductors and anyone working in a rail yard or along a right-of-way. Fibers taken home on workers’ clothes also exposed spouses and children to risks for asbestosis and cancers, the deadliest of which is mesothelioma.

Asbestos Causes Many Disabling and Deadly Diseases

The link between both acute and long-term asbestos exposure and the following, often fatal, health problems has been apparent since the days of ancient Greece:

  • Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining around the lungs that sometimes also effects the stomach and intestines
  • Lung cancer, in many forms
  • Other cancers, including brain and colorectal
  • Asbestosis, scarring from fibers that get trapped in the lungs
  • COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that mimics asthma or emphysema

Medical proof of a cause-and-effect relationship emerged during the 1930s and 1940s, but America’s largest asbestos miner and processor, Johns Manville, literally ordered reports from lab tests showing the connection destroyed.

Damage and Dangers From Asbestos Persist

Then, starting in the 1960s, shipyard workers and others who had produced war materiel during World War II started falling ill and dying in great numbers. Wartime work with asbestos was starting to take its toll, and the fallout has continued into second and third generations as the children and grandchildren of people who carried asbestos fibers into their homes now fall ill.

Railroads were one of the last industries to take asbestos out of the workplace. Train locomotives and rail cars loaded with the material remained in use well into the 1990s. Buildings insulated with asbestos still stand in many rail yards and corporate headquarters campuses. Exact numbers of rail employees and dependents who develop asbestos diseases are tough to determine, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented slightly more than 18,000 deaths from mesothelioma between 1995 and 2005. Year-by-year death totals increased from the start of the observation period.

The rise in fatal cases of mesothelioma points to the reality that symptoms of asbestos diseases often appear decades after exposure. This means that railroad workers who encountered asbestos on the job during the 1960s and 1970s may only now, in 2015, be falling ill.

Confronted with all these facts and asked to pay for the health care and deaths of their former employees, railroads take to the courts to deny and escape liability for negligently endangering their workers. My Virginia-based personal injury and wrongful death laws firm colleagues have helped many people hold the corporations accountable, but the cases often take years. The too-long history of rail companies subjecting people to asbestos problems goes on.