One of the biggest makers of pulp and paper in the world, Georgia-Pacific is less well known for its many other products. These include construction products, like drywall, as well as chemicals and products for the aerospace and mining industries. With headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, the history of this company that is now privately owned by Koch Industries dates back to humble 1927 beginnings in Augusta, Georgia.
In 1965 Georgia-Pacific made the fateful acquisition of a company that produced construction materials with a mixture of gypsum and asbestos fibers. At about the same time, the medical community was just beginning to realize how harmful asbestos is to human health and that it is connected to the aggressive cancer called mesothelioma. Georgia-Pacific has not made any of these products for decades, but it is still facing lawsuits and billions of dollars in settlements over workers with lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Georgia-Pacific Company History
In 1927, Owen Robertson Cheatham founded the Georgia Hardwood Lumber Company in Augusta, Georgia. He began his small company selling hardwood lumber and operating a few sawmills throughout the state. The company grew over the next decade, still focusing on lumber, and during World War II became the largest supplier of lumber to the war effort. In the post-war building boom the company grew even further and expanded out west with its first location in Bellingham, Washington. To reflect the expansion, the company changed its name to Georgia-Pacific Plywood and Lumber Company and eventually just Georgia-Pacific Corporation.
By the 1950s Georgia-Pacific was ready to expand out of lumber only and into the manufacturing of wood pulp and paper. The first tissue products were made it the early 1960s, which led to many well-known paper product brands like Dixie, Coronet, and Brawny. Over the next several decades the company would continue to grow, often by acquiring smaller companies. In 1965 Georgia-Pacific acquired Bestwall Gypsum and got into the construction materials manufacturing industry. In 2005, Koch Industries bought Georgia-Pacific for a whopping $21 billion and the company is now private.
Products with Asbestos
Georgia-Pacific may have avoided asbestos problems entirely if it hadn’t been for its buyout of Bestwall Gypsum. This smaller company was founded in the early 1920s and made a product called Beaver Products’ Bestwall. This was a wallboard that became a very popular building material throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and even into the 1960s. The wallboard was made with gypsum, and crucially, with asbestos. Georgia-Pacific would ultimately pay for this one small branch of its huge company.
As part of Georgia-Pacific, Bestwall Gypsum continued to make drywall, wallboard, and joint compound into the 1970s when asbestos legislation put a stop to the manufacture of many asbestos products. Gypsum is a natural mineral, like asbestos, but is not carcinogenic or harmful to human health. Asbestos fibers were mixed into the gypsum to make construction products, adding strength to the materials as well as fireproofing and additional insulation.
While Georgia-Pacific only ever had a few products in its entire lineup that contained asbestos, these products were heavily used in the construction industry for many years. By the 1970s it became well known that asbestos could cause serious health issues, but it was too late for many. Georgia-Pacific manufactured several lines of joint compound, through Bestwall Gypsum, that affected thousands of people who made or used it.
Workers Exposed to Georgia-Pacific Asbestos Products
Georgia-Pacific never made very many products containing asbestos, but the construction materials that did contain it had a wide reach. Particularly problematic was the joint compound used on walls in new construction. Workers would have sanded these walls and the joint compound before painting. Sanding created dust that contained asbestos. When people breathe in that dust, asbestos fibers get lodged in tissues and cause damage. Some will later develop cancer or another illness.
Many people were potentially put at risk of getting mesothelioma or lung cancer because of the asbestos in Georgia-Pacific products. A small group is anyone who worked in their manufacturing facilities or those of Bestwall Gypsum. These workers would have been around asbestos and even handled it, likely without adequate safety gear for protection.
A larger group is the thousands of construction workers, and even individual homeowners, who worked with, used, or just worked near Bestwall and Georgia-Pacific joint compound. These workers installed asbestos-containing products, maintained them, repaired them, and even those that did not handle it directly could have been in the area and may have inhaled the dust. Owners of older homes that do renovations or make repairs have also been put at risk. Workers on construction sites with asbestos can even take asbestos fibers home on their clothing and contaminate their own homes, putting family members at risk of getting sick.
When Georgia-Pacific got into the construction materials business by acquiring Bestwall Gypsum, it took on liability for all the asbestos products that company made. Although it has faced thousands of lawsuits, and is likely to face more, from people who got sick from asbestos exposure, Georgia-Pacific has so far been able to handle the legal costs and settlements without going through bankruptcy protection or starting an asbestos trust fund. That may change in the future.
Georgia-Pacific was recently found to have tried to fight its many lawsuits in an underhanded, and possibly illegal way. A recent appeals court decision in New York found that the company took actions that may be considered fraudulent. As asbestos lawsuits came in, Georgia-Pacific hired and paid nearly $6 million to consultants and scientists to conduct and publish experiments that would defend its products and cast doubt on the now well-known fact that asbestos products contribute to mesothelioma and lung cancer.
In spite of these expensive attempts to get out of asbestos liability, Georgia-Pacific has paid out in several lawsuits. One recent example came when a Florida jury ordered the company to pay a plaintiff $9.4 million. The man, Ron Taylor, worked for several years in the 1970s as a painting supervisor on construction jobs in the Middle East. His workers used Bestwall joint compound. He described during the case being covered in dust after sanding and claimed it was this asbestos dust that eventually led to his diagnosis of mesothelioma.
It is cases like this and many others that are costing Georgia-Pacific and Koch Industries billions of dollars. The company has tried to avoid liability, but so far unsuccessfully. It is expected that there will be many more asbestos cases filed against Georgia-Pacific and that the company will continue to pay settlements and jury awards. If you believe that your asbestos exposure and resulting illness can be traced to Georgia-Pacific or Bestwall Gypsum products, you can file a lawsuit to seek compensation. Work with an experienced mesothelioma lawyer to ensure you have the best chance of a successful case.
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