One of Donora’s claim to fame is an area known as Cement City. This collection of 100 houses were built in the early 1900s using a process developed by Thomas A. Edison. The homes, made of Edison concrete poured into structural molds, were built for supervisors working for American Steel & Wire Company, a division of US Steel. AS&W owned the steel and zinc factories in town, and at the time Donora was in the midst of a severe housing shortage.
The roof of each house in Cement City was originally capped with shingles made of asbestos, the latest in fireproof roofing materials. The use of asbestos shingles in Cement City must have made sense to AS&W officials. After all, one of the key features of an Edison concrete home was that it was fireproof. Because asbestos shingles were also fireproof, the company would have on its hands truly fireproof buildings, from top to bottom.
Now, we know today how dangerous asbestos is, but did they know about it back then?
First produced by a Czech inventor named Ludwig Hatschek, asbestos shingles were made from a mixture of asbestos fibers and hydraulic cement, an extremely fast-drying form of cement. Hatschek had been searching for a way to make asbestos boards firm enough to be used as panels. It was only after he tried portland cement in 1900 that he found the right formula.
Hatschek named his mixture Eternit, a term taken from the Latin word aeternus, meaning eternal. Asbestos shingles became extremely popular in the United States during the 1920s. Their use in Europe, however, waned when scientists there conducted studies linking asbestos with numerous lung problems in people who worked with it. Many asbestos workers developed asbestosis, a condition in which asbestos fibers embed in the lungs and cause scarring. Later studies proved a link between asbestos inhalation and mesothelioma, a deadly form of lung cancer.
People who worked with asbestos typically don’t display signs of mesothelioma for an average of around fifty years.1 Whether Hatschek knew at the turn of the century that asbestos could cause lung disease has been debated. Regardless, large insurance companies in the US and Canada began refusing to grant policies to asbestos workers as early as 1918, fearing that the eventual payouts would prove too costly.2 Even with a growing amount of data and a declining base of insurers willing to take on asbestos workers, contractors around the country continued to use asbestos shingles well into the 1950s, when asphalt-based products took over.
What Did Owners Know?
It is possible that company officials knew about those early studies. They might even have known people who had worked with asbestos but who didn’t have cancer. They might have thought, Well, John works with asbestos, and he doesn’t have cancer, so it can’t be that bad.
Is it reasonable to expect that those officials would have refused to use asbestos shingles in Cement City, based on an assumption that workers could develop lung cancer fifty years down the road? Probably not.
Even if AS&W officials had heard of asbestos being a possible cause of lung cancer, and even if they had known that the disease might take decades to develop, they might have dismissed the concerns out of hand anyway. Many physicians in the early 1900s believed that mesothelioma was a secondary cancer, meaning that it arose from another location in the body. If the cancer was secondary, they believed, and the cancer actually originated in, say, the stomach, then asbestos couldn’t have been the cause. Pathologists didn’t start using the term primary to describe mesothelioma until 1920, when physicians labeled the cause of death in one young man “primary mesothelioma of the pleura.” It wasn’t until 1933 that a review of several studies showed the first definitive link between asbestos and mesothelioma.3
The most likely scenario, however, was that company officials didn’t give asbestos a second thought when it came time to select shingles. William Donner’s original plan — to use the newest and best equipment and materials available — remained a key part of the AS&W’s mission well after Donner had moved to Philadelphia and left behind daily oversight. In that light, of course mill officials would have used asbestos shingles, and why not? They were the newest and best shingles available. Worker health wasn’t really a concern.