Reputable companies have been victimized like the unfortunate ladies from Salem.

Hercules Chemical Co. has been a reputable manufacturer of plumbing-heating specialty chemicals for almost 100 years. Many years ago, ending in 1983, they produced a rather innocuous sealant that contained a tiny amount of fully encapsulated asbestos. For that they have been put to the stake and tortured ever since.

As we reported last month, Hercules decided to pursue a voluntary bankruptcy strategy in which the company established a trust to deal with more than 7,000 pending and future lawsuits seeking damages for persons allegedly injured - or threatened to be injured, or perhaps dreamt of being injured - by fleeting exposure to a product whose total volume in most installations could be held in the palm of one’s hand, and whose asbestos content wouldn’t amount to a fingernail’s worth.

Prior to this the company and its insurance carriers had poured way too many dollars over the years into legal fees and settlements pertaining to previous lawsuits launched by court-sanctioned extortion artists known as trial lawyers. Some of their clients were people who merely walked through a room where the product was present, which conjures up an image of all those Victorian ladies swooning with the vapors. Hercules joins some prominent former Fortune 500 giants such as Johns-Manville and W.R. Grace in choosing bankruptcy - and survival - over slow death from the asbestos litigation scam that has been playing out in our country for a couple of decades.

The craze has its roots in an indisputable link between asbestos and a rare but nasty variation of lung cancer known as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is associated with extensive and prolonged exposure to asbestos. Most victims worked in asbestos mining or manufacturing where they inhaled massive amounts of airborne asbestos fibers day after day for years on end.

As we all know, before its hazards were known asbestos was a common ingredient for insulation and other building products thanks to its fire-resistance. Many plumbers and pipefitters were exposed repeatedly to asbestos from ripping out old pipe and boiler insulation. Yet, although they are said to be part of a high-risk group, nobody has documented any widespread outbreak of mesothelioma among this population. This suggests that even the pipe trades’ elevated degree of exposure seldom was enough to trigger the disease. Nonetheless, serpentine ambulance chasers have tricked thousands of juries into awarding megabucks to alleged victims with far more casual exposure.

One of the tricks up their sleeve plays on the fact that mesothelioma takes decades to develop after prolonged exposure. This enables plaintiff attorneys, in many cases, to dispense with producing actual victims. They simply argue that anyone exposed maybe-possibly-could show symptoms way down the road. And they know how to milk the tear ducts of juries carefully selected on the basis of gullibility.

In 1991, the American Medical Association reviewed all the studies done on the health hazards of asbestos and concluded that the risk was grotesquely exaggerated. They found that exposure to a few airborne fibers given off by asbestos building materials had no detectable impact on human health. The following year the EPA financed a comprehensive report of its own on the risk of asbestos in buildings. Performed by the Health Effects Institute, this study found that the risk was 10 times greater of catching cancer from asbestos fibers floating around outdoors in urban areas than from indoor asbestos. More recently, the EPA gave reassurances following 9/11 that the asbestos fibers released by the collapse of the World Trade Center, though exceeding EPA limits, was nothing to worry about because the agency’s standard was a “stringent standard based on long-term exposure.”

This is precisely the case made by all those companies facing gazillion-dollar liabilities for trivial asbestos exposures. But corporations are way outmatched when it comes to tugging at heart strings and utilizing junk science to advantage. So most end up settling asbestos lawsuits rather than run up even more megabucks in legal expenses and awards defending against cases they are likely to lose. Hercules is not the only company in our industry facing asbestos liabilities from ancient products, although most are understandably reluctant to talk about it.

Rational people look back with bemusement at the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, marveling at how ignorant and hysterical were the citizens of that time and place. Tomorrow’s historians will look at today’s asbestos hysteria and conclude we haven’t come very far in the last 300 years.