Kaiser Gypsum Company is a former manufacturer of building products, including drywall, joint compounds and cements. The company was the brainchild of Henry J. Kaiser, the influential California businessman whose ventures included Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Steel, Kaiser Motors, shipbuilding enterprises and the health care company that would become known as Kaiser-Permanente.
Born in New York State in 1882, Kaiser was a man of big ideas who saw great potential, especially in the post-World War II era. He first went into business in 1923 with a sand and gravel plant; in 1938, he expanded with a cement company. The following year, Kaiser went into the shipbuilding business, filling lucrative ship orders for the U.S. government. During the war, Kaiser’s seven shipyards produced one "Liberty Ship" per day, more than 800 in all.
Kaiser was known as a master of “vertical integration,” and often founded new companies to work in tandem with other projects he had started. For example, Kaiser founded Kaiser Aluminum to provide metal for his automotive manufacturing company. He was also savvy about the needs of the burgeoning post-war industry. During the war, Kaiser had constructed large housing projects adjacent to his shipyards. In the process, he learned that shortages were a serious problem in the housing industry; plaster, wallboard and other supplies were very hard to come by. As a result, he founded Kaiser Gypsum Company in 1952.
Kaiser retired in 1959, and shortly thereafter his companies began to be sold off – including Kaiser Gypsum, which was sold in 1978 for $35 million to a Canadian company named Domtar. The company was later sold again in 1996 to Georgia Pacific – another company that would eventually come under scrutiny for its use of asbestos.
Asbestos Exposure Risk at Kaiser Gypsum
Joint compound, sometimes referred to as “mud,” is a spreadable product used in building projects to cover the gaps between adjoining pieces of drywall. The substance, which can be sold in powder form or pre-mixed, is spread over the cracks between two pieces of drywall, allowed to dry, and then sanded down to create a smooth, even wall surface. For many years, companies – including Kaiser Gypsum – added a naturally occurring mineral called asbestos to joint compounds. The mineral helped to make the product resistant to fire, moisture and insects, and also helped make it smoother and more spreadable without changing the product’s basic nature.
It wasn’t just joint compounds that contained asbestos. Numerous companies used asbestos in thousands of products – everything from oven mitts to boilers to packing materials – to make them stronger, more durable or heat- and fire-resistant. The additive was appealing, not just because it was so effective, but because it was readily available in nature and inexpensive.
Today, of course, we know that asbestos is not safe. When products made with asbestos age, or when they are cut or sanded, the thin, fibrous crystals that comprise the mineral are released into the air. This is precisely what occurs when joint compounds, such as those made by Kaiser Gypsum, are mixed, sanded, or when walls that are covered in the compound are demolished. When these fibers are inhaled, they can become lodged in a person’s lungs and cause devastating health problems like mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis.
The public, for the most part, remained unaware of the health risks associated with asbestos until the mid-1970s, but some say executives at Kaiser Gypsum knew the dangers much earlier. One lawsuit against the company alleged that Kaiser Gypsum knew of the risks at least by 1965, and possible as early as the company’s founding in 1952.
Kaiser Gypsum products that may have contained asbestos include (but are not limited to):
- Kaiser Gypsum Dual Purpose Joint Compound
- Kaiser Gypsum Joint Compound (1953 – 1975)
- Kaiser Gypsum One-Day Joint Compound (1953 – 1975)
Occupations at Risk for Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to asbestos in Kaiser Gypsum products could have occurred in any number of sites, both in and out of the workplace. Individuals who worked on construction sites where the company’s asbestos-containing joint compounds were used are one group that could be at risk. This could include drywall tapers, construction workers, supervisors, masons, hod carriers – any type of worker that was on a job site when joint compounds were being mixed or sanded.
Factory workers who worked in Kaiser Gypsum plants could also be at risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibers if they handled or worked near bags of raw asbestos fibers. Truck drivers and hardware store employees could also have been affected if some asbestos particles escaped while they were handling bags of the product in transit. Demolition workers could also be at risk – even if they worked after the company stopped using asbestos in its products. In fact, many older buildings today probably still contain hazardous Kaiser Gypsum products, so demolition crews should always exercise caution when working on older sites.
Furthermore, anyone who used Kaiser Gypsum’s joint compounds in a home repair project could be at risk – and so could their families. Even if a worker’s loved ones never came into contact with an asbestos product directly, damage may still be done secondhand, if the hazardous asbestos dust is brought home on a worker’s clothes or shoes.
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