The Precautionary Principle Again

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The cavalier attitude toward the health risks imposed on people in the largest city in the country represents one of the strongest arguments for the precautionary principle. Disregarding its lethal properties, asbestos has a marvelous ability to reduce risks by retarding fire and insulating from heat. Asbestos also proved to be useful in many products ranging from automobile brakes to roofing shingles.

When modern industry first began to use asbestos intensively, the risks were unknown, but so too was the logic behind the precautionary principle. Once industry became engaged in manufacturing asbestos products, it wielded its power to shield itself from government regulation. Success in this regard was not particularly difficult because the public was largely kept ignorant of the growing medical evidence of the dangers associated with asbestos. Industry was not alone in its desire to continue using asbestos. The Navy packed its ships with asbestos to protect its sailors from fire. Unfortunately, in the process, it put the lives of many more ship workers at risk.

In retrospect, the asbestos industry left behind a massive toll of death and disease. The companies most responsible lack the resources to even begin to compensate their victims. As a result, a wave of bankruptcy has been spreading across the economy.

In searching for the way out of the morass of bankruptcy, corporate health counts for much more than human health. For example, Michael Bowker described the outcome of the asbestos-induced Johns Manville bankruptcy:

In the end, after tens of millions of dollars were spent on legal and experts' fees and the issue had been dragged through the courts for more than a dozen years, the "bottom line" looked like this: While Johns-Manville paid its debts to commercial creditors on a dollar-for-dollar basis and was allowed to do business as usual, future asbestos claimants were paid ten cents for every dollar they had won from the company through the legal system. That lasted until July 2001, when the amount dropped to five cents on the dollar. As a result, most mesothelioma victims, who often face up to a half million dollars in health care costs to help them battle the enormous discomfort of the incurable disease, were regularly paid less than $20,000 by the J-M Trust. [Bowker 2003: 262]

Even the current corporate-friendly bankruptcy laws appear to pose too much risk to corporate health. As a result, as I mentioned earlier, Congress stepped in to try to offer even more protections for the corporations facing asbestos liability at the expense of people whose health was ruined by the material. Lurking in the background is the ever present call for tort reform, which would limit the ability to sue effectively for damages, such as those caused by the asbestos industry.

Why do these issues rarely get the exposure that they deserve? The complex web of corporate ownership links the media with some of the companies troubled by asbestos liabilities. For example, major media companies, such as Viacom and GE, the respective owners of the CBS and NBC television network as well as many other media outlets, are actively lobbying for relief for their own serious asbestos liability exposure (see Murray and Kranhold 2003).

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