Irving Selikoff and the Right to Peaceful Dissembling

Among concerned writers on corporate conflicts of interest, it is a commonplace that industrial sponsors of epidemiologic and other research selectively publish studies favorable to their positions in litigation and regulatory controversies.  In my experience, most companies are fairly scrupulous about publishing the studies they funded.  If there is a correlation in industry funding and outcome, it is largely the result of corporate funding being directed to areas in which weak or corrupt politically motivated, public-interested scientists have already published studies with dubious results.  Common sense suggests that a fair test of the their claims will result in exonerative results.

It is also a commonplace that academic and public-spirited researchers will not have similar motives to suppress unfavorable results.  Again, in my experience, the opposite is true.  Consider that paragon of public-interested, political scientist, the late Dr. Irving Selikoff. During the course of discovery in the Caterinnichio case, I obtained manuscripts of two studies that Selikoff and his colleague, Bill Nicholson, prepared, but never published.  One study examined the mortality, and especially the cancer mortality, of workers at a Johns-Manville asbestos product manufacturing plant in New Jersey.  William J. Nicholson& Irving J. Selikoff, “Mortality experience of asbestos factory workers; effect of differing intensities of asbestos exposure”(circa 1988).

Selikoff’s failure to publish this manuscript on the Manville plantworkers is curious given his tireless and repeated republication of data from his insulator cohort.  For those familiar with Selikoff’s agenda, the failure to publish this paper appears to have an obvious goal:  suppress the nature and extent of Johns Manville’s use of crocidolite asbestos in its products:

“[O]ther asbestos varieties (amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite) were also used for some products. In general, chrysotile was used for textiles, roofing materials, asbestos cements, brake and friction products, fillers for plastics, etc.; chrysotile with or without amosite for insulation materials; chrysotile and crocidolite for a variety of asbestos cement products.”

Id.  The suppression of studies obviously takes place outside the world of commercial or industrial interests.  SeeSelikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Amphiboles.”

There was yet another studied never published by Selikoff, his work, again with Bill Nicholson, on the mortality of shipyard workers at the Electric Boat Company, in Groton, Connecticut. Irving Selikoff & William Nicholson, “Mortality Experience of 1,918 Employees of the Electric Boat Company, Groton, Connecticut January 1, 1967 – June 30, 1978” (Jan. 27, 1984) [cited below as Electric Boat].

Many of the asbestos cases that worked their way through the legal system in the 1980s and 1990s were filed by shipyard workers.  Most of these shipyard workers were not insulators, but claimed asbestos bystander exposure from work near insulators.  Invariably, the expert witnesses for these shipyard worker plaintiffs relied upon risk data from the Selikoff of asbestos insulators, even though Selikoff himself cautioned against using the insulator data for non-insulators:

“These particular figures apply to the particular groups of asbestos workers in this study.  The net synergistic effect would not have been the same if their smoking habits had been different; and it probably would have been different if their lapsed time from first exposure to asbestos dust had been different or if the amount of asbestos dust they had inhaled had been different.”

Selikoff, et al., “Asbestos Exposure, Cigarette Smoking and Death Rates,” 330 Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. at 487 (1979).

Having access to Selikoff’s shipyard worker data would have been extremely useful to the fact-finding process, because these data failed to support the cancer projections used by testifying expert witnesses.  Selikoff and Nicholson pointed out that about 50% of the Electric Boat shipyard workers had X-ray abnormalities  Electric Boat at 2. (This finding must be interpreted in the darkness of Selikoff’s documented propensity to overread chest X-rays for asbestos findings.  Rossiter, “Initial repeatability trials of the UICC/ Cincinnati classification of the radiographic appearances of pneumoconioses.” 29 Brit. J. Indus. Med. 407 (1972) (reporting IJS’s readings as among the most extreme outliers in a panel of pulmonary and radiology physicians; showing that IJS films were read as showing abnormal profusion of small, irregular densities up to twice as often as the most reliable readers in the study.)).

Selikoff’s unpublished Electric Boat study cautioned that the mortality data reflected short duration and latency, and that the full extent of asbestos-related manifestations had not been reached.  Electric Boat at 3.  This assertion was not really borne out by the data.  Selikoff’s paper reported the following observed and expected data for lung cancer:

Years from onset of employment 10-14 15-19 20-24 25-29 30+ TOTAL
OBSERVED 4 23.3 15 3 4 35
EXPECTED 1.3 17.7 8.1 4.7 5.1 25.9

The study is primitive even by then contemporary standards.  There is no control for smoking; and no data on smoking habits.  There is no data on radiation exposure. (Electric Boat built nuclear submarines.) No p-values or confidence intervals are supplied; nor are any estimates of trends included.

Despite Selikoff’s assertion that the follow-up period was not sufficiently long to capture asbestos-related malignancies, the data tell a different story.  The lung cancer Obs./Exp. ratios are increased for 10-14 years, and for 15-19 years, and so these risk ratios reflect that the cohort likely had non-asbestos-related risks for lung cancer, which risks are at work before the cohort entered the lagged period in which they might have elevated asbestos-related risks.  Although the numbers are smaller for the time intervals that involve more than 20 years from first employment, the observed numbers and risk ratios of lung cancers hardly suggests very much in terms of an occupational asbestos risk.

These data were obtained only because Bill Nicholson often served as an expert witness for plaintiffs in personal injury actions.  When he did so in New Jersey, he was subject to fairly broad discovery obligations, and thus I was able to obtain his unpublished studies.  Otherwise, the public and the scientific community learned only what Selikoff selectively disclosed in media interviews.  See Samuel G. Freedman, “Worker’s suit over asbestos at Groton shipyard to openNew York Times (Jan. 19, 1982) (noting the 50% prevalence finding, but not the mortality data).

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