Republic Powdered Metals (RPM Industries)
Republic Powdered Metals (RPM) has been in business since the 1940s, making and selling protective coatings. Today the company still makes coatings, but also makes sealants and other specialty chemicals. In the 1960s, RPM made a fateful acquisition of a company that made coatings, joint compounds, and other products with asbestos as a key ingredient.
RPM assumed liability for asbestos-related illnesses when it made that acquisition. Although Bondex helped expand the company’s product line and reach, it also cost it millions of dollars in lawsuits and a resulting bankruptcy. RPM emerged from bankruptcy to continue business and with the establishment of an asbestos trust that was set up and funded to compensate current and future victims of asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Republic Powdered Metals is today known as RPM International Inc. It provides products to clients around the world with about 14,000 employees and 139 facilities for manufacturing specialty chemicals, sealants, and high-performance coatings. RPM’s facilities are in the U.S. and several other countries. Nearly two-thirds of its products are sold internationally to industrial clients. The most recent year’s sales were over $5 billion.
The history of today’s RPM International began in 1947 when Frank Sullivan founded the company with the sole purpose of making and selling Alumanation, a specialty protective coating that no other company offered at the time. This was a heavy-duty coating used for roofing that was made from aluminum, and it is still sold by RPM today. In its first year, RPM had sales of $90,000.
Over the next few decades, under the leadership of Sullivan, Republic Powdered Metals would expand by offering more products and by making acquisitions of other companies. Some of the additional products the company offered included rustproofing and waterproofing coatings under brand names like Valvtect, Mohawk, Chemspec, Guardian, Day-Glo, and others. When the founder passed away in 1971 and his son took over running the business, RPM instituted an even more aggressive practice of acquiring new companies.
One of these companies that RPM acquired was Reardon. They took it on in 1966, including the company’s Bondex brand, which included joint compounds, coatings, and cement. Although RPM continued to expand and grow, and in most respects was a very successful company, it filed for bankruptcy in 2010 due to the cost of lawsuits over mesothelioma and other illnesses related to exposure to the asbestos in many Bondex products. RPM emerged from bankruptcy and continues to operate today.
Asbestos Use in Products
Bondex products made by Reardon and then RPM were not alone in containing asbestos. For a period of time in the twentieth century it was typical to use asbestos in a variety of products, especially in construction materials. The reason it was used so often was that it has many unique properties that are useful in various industries, but also because it is easy to use, can be molded into different shapes, is lightweight, and is abundant in mines.
In the kinds of products RPM and Bondex made, asbestos was useful because it added strength to materials, it helped to insulate the materials and the buildings they went into, and it added fireproofing. Some of the brands and products RPM was ultimately responsible for and that contained asbestos include Bondex ready-mix and all-purpose joint compounds and all-purpose joint cement, Bontone fibred masonry coating, Dramex ready-mix finish, and a liquid aluminum coating.
Workers who handled or worked with, or even in the vicinity of, asbestos were at risk of being exposed to it and of developing serious illnesses as a result. These include mesothelioma and lung cancer, but also the lung scarring called asbestosis, which is progressive and ultimately fatal. The way in which exposure occurs is that tiny, needle-like fibers from asbestos come loose from the mineral and enter the air as dust. People around it inhale those fibers and instead of passing through, they get stuck in the body, causing damage over a long period of time.
The more asbestos is handled, manipulated, and disturbed, the more likely it is to cause exposure. RPM workers, and before that Reardon workers, that made Bondex and other products with asbestos were at risk of exposure because they were around the material on the job and even handled it. Additionally, workers in other industry, especially construction workers, were at risk when they used the products. The joint compounds, for instance, were often sanded after they dried, and this caused fibers of asbestos dust to contaminate the air and surfaces. Also at risk, but less so, were homeowners who bought and used these products in their homes.
Asbestos Lawsuits and Bankruptcy
After facing a number of lawsuits over asbestos exposure and resulting illnesses, mostly from Bondex products, RPM filed for bankruptcy in 2010. These lawsuits numbered in the thousands and included a lot of costly settlements that the company ultimately couldn’t keep up with unless it resorted to bankruptcy and reorganization. In one example of the many lawsuits against RPM and Bondex a former painter who used the products on the job in Texas for many years developed mesothelioma. Four different companies were defendants in the case, all of whom were expected to split the $11 million settlement awarded to the victim.
After filing for bankruptcy, RPM created an asbestos trust as part of its reorganization plan and agreement with the courts. The trust was founded in 2010 and was funded with $140 million. This allowed the company to begin operating again as a coatings and chemical manufacturer, while also still compensating victims through the fund.
RPM survived its asbestos liability, which cannot be said about all companies that face these lawsuits. The company did have to create that trust, and that is now the way that current and future victims can seek justice and compensation. There are likely to be more people who begin developing symptoms of asbestos diseases and more claims are expected to be made in the future. If you can trace your illness back to use of Bondex, you can file a claim with RPM’s trust to seek the compensation you need.
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