Historical Malfeasance from Lawsuit Industry Expert Witnesses

“The slickest way in the world to lie is to tell the right amount of truth at the right time-and then shut up.”

― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Is David Rosner’s and Gerald Markowitz’s ToxicDocs Website Really A Scholarly Enterprise?

In past posts,[1] I have called attention to a project launched by historian David K. Rosner and others to provide a free, web-based database of industry “secret” documents that come out of litigation files. Rosner and his frequent co-author, Gerald Markowitz, organized a group of sycophantic, lawsuit industry acolytes – both lawsuit industry consultants and lawyer – to write endorsements in a special issue in the Journal of Public Health Policy.[2]

The ToxicDocs project has received a warm embrace from Rosner’s fellow travellers,[3] and perhaps more disturbing, funding, to the tune of almost half a million dollars, from the National Science Foundation.[4]

The Abstract for the National Science Foundation grant is both incredibly revealing, and concealing:

“This award supports a research infrastructure project called ToxicDoc. It will enable easy access and use of millions of documents for multi-disciplinary research. Recent class-action tort litigation has unearthed millions of previously secret internal records from private firms responsible for wide-scale introduction of toxic substances, such as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These documents include memos between executives, unpublished scientific studies, planning documents for public relations campaigns, letters to policymakers, and trade association meeting minutes.

Although technically part of the public record, this material is extremely hard to access, even for scientific researchers. ToxicDocs will provide a critical intellectual resource for scholars in multiple fields examining health, toxics, and corporate action. Expected users include scholars in environmental and health history, critical legal studies, hazards geography, environmental health and environmental justice research.

*** Without taking any particular side, ToxicDocs will provide an empirical base for informed policy debates that are grounded in key historical records.” (emphasis added)

The project is, in my view, a great deception for several reasons.

First, despite the claims of novelty, the concept is a rehash of tobacco industry documents that have been up and running on the internet for many years.[5]

Second, many if not most of the documents are, and have been, in the public domain for a long time. There are many transcripts and documents that were offered in open judicial proceedings, without any protective or confidentiality orders.

Third, the database has been sanitized to protect against disclosure of the lawsuit industry’s misdeeds. You will not find the infamous Barron & Budd memorandum, which provided instructions to asbestos plaintiffs on how to lie at depositions. You will not find the secret correspondence between plaintiffs’ lawyers and their expert witnesses about how to abridge their historical researches to avoid unfavorable revelations. You will not find any evidence of the unlawful and unethical schemes, by the lawsuit industry, to conduct mass screenings and manufacturing of claims in various mass tort litigations, including the asbestos, silica, and welding litigations.

Fourth, the database is grossly incomplete because many correlative documents that modify, qualify, or even reverse the meaning of databased documents are absent. Rosner’s database is a sham because it is deceptively imbalanced and misleading in its content. Contrary to the abstract on the National Science Foundation’s website, ToxicDocs most definitely takes a “particular side,” invariably the side of the lawsuit industry.

Let me give you some examples of omissions, relating to Gerrit W.H. Schepers, who was a participant in developing knowledge about asbestos hazards, and a frequent testifier for the lawsuit industry on general and specific causation of asbestos diseases, as well as the historical development of knowledge of those diseases.

In ToxicDocs, you will find entries for some testimony about Schepers, extolling his writings on asbestos and his role at the Trudeau Institute, at Saranac Lake, New York, usually by lawsuit industry expert witnesses, such as Barry Castleman. You will find examples of people within manufacturing industrial concerns that criticize Schepers, especially after he entered the fray as a partisan testifying expert witness for the lawsuit industry. What you will not find in ToxicDocs are many examples of Schepers’ testimony, and specifically some of his more outlandish testimony.

Schepers testified frequently. Indeed, he testified so often that he came to see himself as seemingly a “performing seal” for the lawyers who called him.[6] As a testifying expert witness, Schepers was certainly as slippery as a seal.

The first time I went off to cross-examine Dr. Gerritt Schepers was in a New Jersey case, brought by an Owens-Corning Fiberglas plantworker, who worked on making OCF’s Kaylo insulation.[7] The plantworker had undeniable asbestos exposure from which he had developed peritoneal mesothelioma. During his years of employment, Owens-Corning had used both chrysotile and amosite in manufacturing Kaylo. The amosite supplier was in South Africa and judgment proof, but the plaintiff’s lawyer was able to sue Carey-Canada, Inc., a Canadian chrysotile mining company for its supply to the factory. One other chrysotile supplier had settled, and the third, Johns-Manville was in bankruptcy.  In this plantworker case, I represented Carey-Canada in what turned out to be one of its last cases in the United States, before filing for bankruptcy. After a hard fought trial, in which the plaintiff’s estate called Schepers and other expert witnesses, the Camden County jury returned a no-cause verdict on the mesothelioma claim. You will not find the trial transcript of Schepers’ testimony, whether direct or cross-examination, in ToxicDocs.

A year later, I saw Schepers again, in a New Jersey case.[8] He was again a paid expert witness, this time to testify about “state of the art,” and he was as wily as ever, in providing some wild testimony. Here is a flavor:

Q. Back in the 1950s Doctor Hueper 20 was fairly well regarded as an expert in industrial medicine?

A. No. No. No. No. He was a — he was a pathologist, epidemiologist, whose main focus was cancer, not all of the industrial medicine or hygiene, and his focus was almost singularly on the issue of relationship between industrial processes and cancer. That’s about the only way I can answer that question.

Q. All right. Was he regarded – was [sic] his opinions regarded — well regarded in the 1950s?

A. Oh, my goodness, some — some people thought that he was criminally irresponsible, and others thought he was a genius. I can’t answer that question.

Q. Did some think he was irresponsible because he rejected the association between smoking and lung cancer?

A. No. No. No. No. It is because he blamed everything, he blamed he just blamed everything as a cause. By then he got to the stage where you could get cancer from riding down the highway. You could get cancer from working with silica bricks, all things that are — you know, had been disproven, so forth.[9]

After this criminal indictment of Hueper, I chose to ratchet down the examination and ask about a less nefarious character:

Q. Let me though ask you about Doctor or Professor Philip Drinker. He was not a physician but he was an industrial hygienist.

A. No, he was an engineer.

Q. He was actually on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health?

A. Yes.

Q. And he was a well respected figure in industrial hygiene?

A. Yes. Yes.

Q. And, in fact, I believe that you had dedicated one of your books to him; is that correct?

A. Yes.[10]

An interesting colloquy, considering that Drinker is demonized by the ToxicDoc historians, and Drinker’s works are largely absent from the ToxicDoc database, as was my deposition transcript, and many others like it.

The Biological Action of Talc and Other Silicate Minerals

In 1973, Schepers published a written statement of his views on the carcinogenicity of talc, tremolite, chrysotile, and crocidolite.[11] Schepers’ paper, which was published in an Information Circular of the United States government, pronounced that the

“[p]roliferation of pleural mesothelium is a classical sequel to crocidolite exposure which leads to neoplasis (mesothelioma) in a high proportion of cases.”[12]

Indeed, the only suggestion of the cause of mesothelioma in this 1973 government publication by Schepers was crocidolite asbestos.[13]

A copy of Schepers’ 1973 paper is not in the ToxicDocs database.

Schepers’ Letter to Grover Wrenn

Three years later, on July 19, 1976, Schepers wrote to Grover Wrenn, who was, at the time, the Chief of the Division of Health Standards Development, in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, within the Department of Labor, in Washington.

The subject of Schepers’ letter was “Scientific Data on Fibrous Minerals and Beryllium.” According to Schepers’ letter, he was following up on his recent meeting with Wrenn, by sending represents and copies of articles on asbestos and beryllium, which were under intense scrutiny from OSHA at the time.

In his letter to Wrenn, Schepers summarized his views at the time:

“As you can see, my researches cast considerable doubt on the proposition that [A]merican fibrous minerals are carcinogenic. I am not one of those who doubt the carcinogenicity of everything. To the contrary, I believe I have helped prove that some environmental pollutants are carcinogenic. For this reason, you may perhaps accept the credibility of my findings when I state that I could detect no evidence of carcinogenicity for either chrysotile, talc or fiberglass.”

Schepers’ letter to Grover Wrenn is not in ToxicDocs.

Schepers’ Letter to Navy Captain D. F. Hoeffler

By 1978, the Navy was up to its gunnels in asbestos claims, and Schepers sensed an opportunity. On March 10, 1978, Schepers wrote to Captain D.F. Hoeffler, who with the Medical Corps in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, in the Department of the Navy. His intent was clear; he was looking for consulting work in connection with lawsuits. His letter was a remarkable snap shot of what an ostensible expert on asbestos was thinking and writing about fiber type and cancer in 1978, and so I am reproducing the letter in full:

Dear Captain Hoeffler:

A multitude of duties and interruptions delayed my response to your telephone inquiry of a few weeks ago. You desired some details concerning my experience with the pneumoconioses. I had to dig through some boxes to get you this material and some we had to Xerox afresh.

Here is a CV and some reprints which will possibly be helpful. Since I have been involved with so many things my expertise with respect to asbestosis is somewhat hidden among the rest. For emphasis therefore let me summarize that my clinical and research involvement with asbestosis and thus also lung cancer spans some thirty years. I commenced this work in South Africa, where as a pulmonary medical director for the pneumoconiosis Bureau we researched the working conditions and health of all employee of that countries[sic] extensive crocidolite and amosite mines an industries. The fact that mesotheliomatosis can be associated with exposure was first discovered by me during 1949 at the Penge-Egnep mines in the Eastern Transvaal. It is also important to know that only one out of three persons who develop mesothelioma ever was exposed to asbestos dust. The Institute for Pneumoconiosis Research which I started there has abundant evidence about this.

In the USA I next studied the asbestos problem for the Quebec Government and the Johns Manville Company and also for various asbestos producing companies. This embraced research on human subjects, lung tissue and experimental animals. The net result of my fifteen years of work in this field here has been to convince me that chrysotile, which is the North American type of asbestos, is relatively innocuous as compared to the African and Russian varieties. I have never seen a case of lung cancer develop in any person exposed to chrysotile only. However I have seen plenty of lung cancers in asbestos workers. This is because most asbestos workers also are exposed to carcinogenic materials other than asbestos and all the cases with lung cancer also were chronic lung self-mutilators through cigarette smoking. In a rather major set of experiments of mine I exposed animals to the most potent known carcinogen (beryllium sulphate) and then exposed them to asbestos (chrysotile) dust. These animals had fewer cancers than those exposed to the beryllium sulphate. So chrysotile is not even a significant co-carcinogen. I reversed the order of the exposure, namely asbestos (chrysotile) first and then the BeSO4. The result was the same. The animals exposed only to chrysotile never developed any lung cancers.

I probably have the largest collection of asbestosis case materials, having been a consultant to hundreds of physicians. I have a very detailed knowledge of what various types of asbestos can an cannot do to the lungs. If my command of this subject can be of any cse [sic] to the Navy in the current law suit please feel to use my services as you deem fit.

Other reprints will be forwarded in separate packages as I locate them. I am still extricating myself from my recent move.

Sincerely,

Gerrit W. H. Schepers, MD, Sc.D.

Aside from implicating smoking as the overwhelming, most important cause of lung cancer, Schepers exculpated chrysotile (the North American asbestos fiber) from causing cancer. At the same time, he pointed the finger to asbestos mined in the Transvaal, which was mostly amosite but with some crocidolite, as the cause of mesothelioma.[14] Indeed, the Transvaal was the source of almost all of world’s supply of amosite and much of its crocidolite. Schepers dates his “discovery” to 1949, a full decade and some before the date typically given for the discovery by Christopher Wagner.[15] A search of Schepers’ publications fails to show that he ever published his “discovery,” even after he came to the United States in the early 1950s. At the time, American companies were importing considerable South African amphibole asbestos, which was used a wide variety of products, including asbestos-containing insulation.

A disinterested historian might have that this letter should have been included in a database of historical documents about who knew what and when, but…

Schepers’ Letter to Captain D. F. Hoeffler is not in ToxicDocs.  

This exercise about Schepers could and should be repeated on any number of other topics and writers. It is hard to escape the conclusion that ToxicDocs is not a true research historical archive. It is designed by, and for, historians who advocate for the lawsuit industry. As such, the database frames the issues of historical knowledge as manufacturing industry versus individuals, without a meaningful exploration of what labor unions and the government knew and did when they had control over exposures to various chemicals, dusts, and materials.

What a waste of taxpayers’ money!


[1]  “ToxicHistorians Sponsor ToxicDocs” (Feb. 1, 2018); “Creators of ToxicDocs Show Off Their Biases” (June 7, 2019);  “David Rosner’s Document Repository” (July 23, 2017).

[2]  David Rosner, Gerald Markowitz, and Merlin Chowkwanyun, “ToxicDocs (www.ToxicDocs.org): from history buried in stacks of paper to open, searchable archives online,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 4 (2018); Anthony Robbins & Phyllis Freeman, “ToxicDocs (www.ToxicDocs.org) goes live: A giant step toward leveling the playing field for efforts to combat toxic exposures,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 1 (2018); Robert N. Proctor, “God is watching: history in the age of near-infinite digital archives,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 24 (2018); Stéphane Horel, “Browsing a corporation’s mind,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 12 (2018); Christer Hogstedt & David H. Wegman, “ToxicDocs and the fight against biased public health science worldwide,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 15 (2018); Joch McCulloch, “Archival sources on asbestos and silicosis in Southern Africa and Australia,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 18 (2018); Sheldon Whitehouse, “ToxicDocs: using the US legal system to confront industries’ systematic counterattacks against public health,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 22 (2018); Elena N. Naumova, “The value of not being lost in our digital world,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 27 (2018); Nicholas Freudenberg, “ToxicDocs: a new resource for assessing the impact of corporate practices on health,” 39 J. Public Health Pol’y 30 (2018).

[3]  Pamela Aaltonen, APHA President, “Science and Industry: Let’s Agree on Goals and Shared Wins,” 109 Am. J. Pub. Health 949 (2019); Carla Cantor, “ToxicDocs Exposes Industry Misdeeds” Columbia Magazine (Summer 2019); Tik Root, “In ToxicDocs.org, a Treasure Trove of Industry Secrets,”  Undark (Jan. 10, 2018); Celeste Monforton, “Public health historians make open to us a treasure trove of industry documents,” Pump Handle (Jan. 26, 2018) (praise from SKAPP co-conspirator); Susan M. Reverby, “Historical Misfeasance: Immorality to Justice in Public Health,” 107 Am. J. Public Health 14 (2017); Merlin Chowkwanyun, “Big Data, Large-Scale Text Analysis, and Public Health Research,” 109 Am. J. Pub. Health S126 (2019) (the author is associated with the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University); Sheldon Krimsky & Carey Gillam, “Roundup litigation discovery documents: implications for public health and journal ethics,” 39 J. Public Health Policy 318 (2018); Xaver Baur, Colin L. Soskolne & Lisa A. Bero, “How can the integrity of occupational and environmental health research be maintained in the presence of conflicting interests?” 18 Envt’l Health 1 (2019); Gerald Markowitz & David Rosner, “Monsanto, PCBs, and the creation of a ‘world-wide ecological problem’,” 39 J. Public Health Policy 463 (2018).

[4]  “Columbia Professors Receive NSF Grant to Expand ToxicDocs ProjectAss’n Schools & Programs of Public Health (Aug. 16, 2018) (reporting that David Rosner and Merlin Chowkwanyun in Columbia’s department of sociomedical sciences received a grant of $457,649 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for support of their ongoing ToxicDocs project).

[5]  The tobacco litigation has spawned several such on-line repositories: “Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library,” Tobacco Archives,” and “Tobacco Litigation Documents.” Rosner’s efforts to create a public library of the documents upon which they rely in litigation harkens to earlier websites. See David Heath & Jim Morris, “Exposed: Decades of denial on poisons. Internal documents reveal industry ‘pattern of behavior’ on toxic chemicals,” Center for Public Integrity (Dec. 4, 2014). Even before the tobacco document repositories were online, lawsuit industry expert witness, David Egilman, sponsored a website (www.egilman.com), now defunct, on which he provided his references and materials upon which he relied in giving testimony.

[6]  Testimony of Gerrit Schepers at 49:9-12 (July 25, 1990), in Hill v. Carey-Canada, Inc., N.J. Super. Ct., Law Div. for Camden Cty., Docket-051429-84.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Deposition of Gerrit W. H. Schepers, in Hadcliff v. Eagle-Picher Inc., N.J. Super. Ct., Law Div. for Gloucester Cty., Docket W-023456-88 (June 14, 1991).

[9]  Id. at 234:19 – 235:15.

[10]  Id. at 236:1-17.

[11]  Gerrit W. H. Schepers, “The Biological Action of Talc and Other Silicate Minerals,” in Goodwin, Proceedings on the Symposium on Talc; U.S. Dep’t Interior Information Circular 8639 (1973).

[12]  Id. at 65.

[13]  Id. at 68.

[14]  James I. Phillips, David Rees, Jill Murray and John C.A. Davies, “Mineralogy and Malignant Mesothelioma: The South African Experience,” Chap. 1, in Carmen Belli & Santosh Anand, eds., Malignant Mesothelioma (2012). See also G.J. V. Clarence, “Amosite asbestos,” 33 Transactions Geol. Soc’y So. Africa 5 (1930); L. Reinecke & L. McClure, “Variations in the quality of amosite asbestos at Penge, Transvaal,” 37 Transactions Geol. Soc’y So. Africa 29 (1934); Bruce Cairncross & Roger Dixon, Minerals of South Africa; The Geological Society of South Africa (1995).

[15]  See J. Christopher Wagner, C.A. Sleggs, and Paul Marchand, “Diffuse pleural mesothelioma and asbestos exposure in the North Western Cape Province,” 17 Br. J. Indus. Med. 260 (1960); J. Christopher Wagner, “The discovery of the association between blue asbestos and mesotheliomas and the aftermath,” 48 Br. J. Indus. Med. 399 (1991).

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