Understanding, Managing, and Living with the

Health Effects of Asbestos

Asbestos Drilling Mud by Any Other Name

July 10, 2011

Raleigh, MS It's hardly surprising the defendant in a drilling mud case that saw the largest jury award thus far handed to a mud engineer now sick with asbestos poisoning wants the case tossed. The size of the award is one thing: $322 million in actual and punitive damages awarded to plaintiff Thomas Brown. The other issue in the view of defendant Union Carbide Corp. is the precedent the award may set for future lawsuits.

The size of the award has been criticized by some. No one, however, is prepared to dispute the dangers of asbestos and the applications that exposed the known carcinogen to thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—without their knowledge.

Brown was involved in asbestos drilling by way of the particular recipe inherent with the drilling mud commonly used for decades on drilling rigs. This "mud," according to various sources, is in reality a compound comprised of dirt and chemicals pumped into drilling holes in an effort to keep the passageways clear and to diffuse heat generated by the constantly-revolving drill bits.

The heat-diffusing capabilities of asbestos are well known, by way of its use as insulation, pipe and duct wrap, and automotive brake linings, for example. However, even as the carcinogenic aspects of asbestos were suspected, workers actively toiling with the material were not becoming noticeably sick.

As a result many employers—including those requiring the use of oil drilling mud—carried on with the status quo in spite of warnings and emerging research confirming the dangers associated with asbestos. The length of time it takes for asbestos mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers to manifest in the body only compounds the problem. It can take decades—upwards of 30 years.

Workers involved in asbestos drilling up until the late 1980s could still remain healthy for the next 10 years, before any signs of cancer or asbestosis might emerge.

Awareness of the dangers linked to asbestos is so widespread that only the most callous of employers will expose their workers to contact with asbestos fibers negligently. If asbestos has not been removed from products, such as drilling mud composition, then workers are required to take rigid precautions to protect themselves and their families.

In contrast to this caution, however, is the realization that so long as a market remains for asbestos, the reviled carcinogen will be sold and exported. Such is the case in Canada, where a chrysotile asbestos enterprise in the province of Quebec continues to ship asbestos to developing countries such as India, where the fiber has proven to be popular.

The Canadian health authority has noted that chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, is generally safer than other forms of asbestos, and accounts for the vast majority of asbestos found and still used in the US as well as other countries.

Don't tell that to Thomas Brown as he struggles to breathe, disabled, due to his time on the drill rigs. His health—and future—is now measured against the composition of drilling mud.