Irving Selikoff – Media Plodder to Media Zealot

Some historians note that Selikoff was “consistently demonized as a media zealot.” See Jock McCulloch & Geoffrey Tweedale, Shooting the messenger: the vilification of Irving J. Selikoff,” 37 Internat’l J. Health Services 619, 619 (2007).

McCulloch and Tweedale’s narrative is incomplete, incoherent and internally inconsistent. Selikoff was not the “messenger” of any novel information. McCulloch and Tweedale’s narrative turns upon a misconception that the dangerousness of asbestos to end users was somehow not known before Dr. Irving Selikoff publicized it with his work in 1964. Sir Richard Doll had published almost a decade earlier on asbestosis and lung cancer. Richard Doll, “Mortality from Lung Cancer in Asbestos Workers,”  12 Br. J. Indus. Med. 81 (1955). Selikoff’s publication, with its inadequate smoking histories, and lack of stratification for asbestosis, was not a significant advance over Doll’s work. With respect to mesothelioma, J. Christopher Wagner and colleagues published their work on mesothelioma among persons exposed to crocidolite, blue asbestos, in South Africa, over a decade before Selikoff published on asbestos. 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).

And for asbestosis among insulators, the United States Navy was out in front of Selikoff, although the Navy was less generous in sharing its knowledge with its vendors.  Before Selikoff published on an asbestosis hazard among insulation workers, the United States Navy published an account in 1962, in which it acknowledged that working conditions were at times unsafe, and led to asbestosis among workers. Capt. H.M. Robbins & William T. Marr, “Asbestosis,” 19 Safety Review 10 (1962) (noting that asbestos dust counts of 200 million particles per cubic foot were not uncommon during insulation ripouts onboard naval vessels). Of course, the asbestosis hazard was known and understood by the asbestos insulators themselves, as can be seen in the union publication, Asbestos Worker, from 1930 on[1]. Anonymous, “The Pulmonary Asbestos Menace,” 9(9) The Asbestos Worker (1930). What was lacking in Selikoff’s work was a demonstration that asbestosis was occurring at exposures below the threshold limit value in place in the 1950s and much of the 1960s.

Second, Selikoff did use media, labor unions, federal agencies, and even industry to fund and advance his research agenda. Public fear worked to his advantage, and Selikoff overstated and exaggerated risk predictions to advance legislation and regulations he favored. See Richard Doll & Richard Peto, “The causes of cancer: quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the United States today,” 66 J. Nat’l Cancer Inst. 1191 (1981). McCulloch and Tweedale never address this reality in their hagiographic narrative.

Although McCulloch and Tweedale focus on historical papers on Selikoff’s unusual path to becoming a physician, they do not address the other issues raised by Selikoff’s career, such as his testimonial adventures on behalf of workers, his lack of disclosure of his income from testifying in his publications, and his conspiratorial efforts to influence key judges in asbestos litigation by inviting them to a one-sided, ex parte conference in New York.

Interestingly, there is some evidence that Selikoff was not a “natural” as a media zealot; the skills were acquired, perhaps through his testimonial adventures in the late 1950s and 1960s. Selikoff’s early efforts at talking to the media showed him to be a “clumsy and plodding” presenter. The following 1955 article provides a contemporaneous account of Selikoff’s media efforts:

“Medical Horizons,” Broadcasting * Telecasting at 14 (Nov. 21, 1955)

“THE DRAMATIC and increasingly successful fight against tuberculosis managed to become a dull story indeed as told on Medical Horizons (ABC-TV), live documentary series showing present-day progress being made by doctors and drugs.

The Nov. 14 offering had narrator Don Goddard, complete with hand mike, making a tour of Seaview Hospital, Staten Island, N.Y., where he talked with Dr. Edward Robitzek and Dr. Irving Selikoff, pioneering physicians at the noted TB clinic. Lines intended to reflect spontaneity instead came out as clumsy and plodding from Mr. Goddard and the two medical men.”

[1] Of course, there is much coyness about acknowledging the risk and hazard information contained in union publications. See, e.g., Theer v. Philip Carey Co., 259 N.J. Super. 40, 44-45, 611 A.2d 148 (1992) (noting that plaintiff was a union insulation worker who received Asbestos Worker, but did not recall risk communications in his own union publication until the 1970s), rev’d, 133 N.J. 610, 628 A.2d 724 (1993); Skonberg v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 576 N.E.2d 28, 30, 215 Ill. App.3d 735 (1991) (noting that plaintiff had received the Asbestos Worker magazine and read it regularly, but somehow managed to miss the information about cancer hazards). Defendants have been known to embrace Selikoff’s work because it coincided with the advent of their product warning labels, labels that were mostly the creation of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and innovations in strict product liability. Selikoff’s claims of novelty helped support state-of-the-art defenses.


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