Owens-Illinois got its start in 1903 when a glass blower by the name of Michael J. Owens invented what would become revolutionary technology in the glass field: the automatic bottle-making machine. It seems strange now, but it wasn’t very long ago that it was extremely difficult to make glass products uniformly, without significant variations in their shape and thickness. Owens’ invention changed that, making the company – then known as the Owens Bottle Company – among the first to offer containers of a consistent shape and size.
Owens Bottle Company merged with Illinois Glass Company in 1929, and the resulting company was named Owens-Illinois Glass Company. It wasn’t long before the company began manufacturing plastics – Owens-Illinois made its first plastic closure in 1932 – and in 1965, company leaders decided to change its name to the more inclusive Owens-Illinois, Inc. The company’s name changed again in 2005, when Owens-Illinois changed its trade name to O-I to consolidate its operations under one brand name that would work in any language. (The company is still legally known as Owens-Illinois, however.)
For decades, Owens-Illinois’ plastics division manufactured containers, closures, trigger sprayers, prescription containers and other plastic products. But in 2007, the company sold that division, and today it focuses exclusively on glass. A Fortune 500 company, Owens-Illinois had revenues of $6.6 billion in 2010.
Products Manufactured by Owens-Illinois that Contained Asbestos
For a short time in the 1940s and 1950s, Owens-Illinois manufactured a line of high-temperature, calcium-silicate pipe and boiler insulation under the product name “Kaylo.” The company manufactured Kaylo at least from 1946 to 1958, at which point Owens-Illinois sold its Kaylo division to Owens-Corning, an Ohio-based fiberglass company. (In fact, Owens-Corning got its start in the 1930s when researchers at Owens-Illinois decided to experiment with glass fiber products.)
Like many insulation products at the time, Kaylo contained asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that can be broken down into long, stringy fibers. In the late 1800s, the United States’ growing industrial sector realized those fibers could be very useful – they were strong, durable, versatile; they were excellent insulators and helped prevent the spread of fire. Before long, asbestos was being mined around the world and shipped in massive quantities to U.S. soil, where it was added to everything from cigarette filters to car brakes to spackle.
Of course, asbestos didn’t magically get into these products by itself. Millions of workers handled the substance daily on assembly lines, laboratories and construction sites, never realizing that by doing so they were irreparably damaging their health. Now we know that exposure to asbestos causes respiratory diseases like asbestosis, a chronic inflammation of the lungs, and mesothelioma, a formerly rare type of cancer caused only by asbestos exposure. Diseases like these are caused when asbestos particles become released into the air and are inhaled into a person’s lungs. This happens most often during the manufacturing process, when raw asbestos fibers can easily become airborne, or when asbestos products age and deteriorate, releasing dust into the environment.
Products manufactured by Owens-Illinois that contained asbestos include, but are not limited to:
- Kaylo Insulation (manufactured by Owens-Illinois from 1946-1958; later manufactured by Owens-Corning until 1975)
Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Anyone who worked with or near Kaylo insulation products between 1946 and 1975 may be at risk of being diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Those most likely to be affected are insulation contractors, construction workers, boilermakers, roofers, plumbers or others who came into contact with asbestos-containing insulation on a job site – especially during the often-dusty installation or demolition processes. Factory workers who manufactured Kaylo products in Owens-Illinois or Owens-Corning factories were also at a high risk of exposure.
But the reach of these products goes farther still. Churches, factories, apartment buildings – any building that utilized Kaylo insulation on their pipes or in their boiler rooms could have posed a risk to the people inside. And unfortunately, there is evidence that asbestos exposure risk can travel; that is, workers who brought home asbestos dust at the end of the day on their clothing, shoes or hair could have put their loved ones at risk by secondhand contact.
As of May 2011, Owens-Illinois has been named in thousands of lawsuits by plaintiffs who say their health suffered after they were exposed to asbestos in the company’s products. As of December 31, 2009, the company reported that it had 7,000 asbestos claims pending and had resolved approximately 10,000 claims the previous year alone.