Manufactured Certainty

With the help of Selikoff’s Lobby, the anti-asbestos zealots have created a false, manufactured certainty about various asbestos issues.  The manufacturing of faux certainty has taken place with respect to the history of knowledge about asbestos, as well as to the current state of knowledge about asbestos hazards.

The Selikoff lobby exercised a great deal of influence on regulators and scientists.  The Lobby was able to bully many scientists and policy makers into adopting a position that held all asbestos mineral fiber types as relatively equal in their potency to cause disease.  The Lobby accomplished this by suppressing evidence of past use of amphibole asbestos, and by overstating the hazards of chrysotile asbestos.

In the past, I have marshaled evidence of Selikoff’s activities as a crocidolite denier.  But was there really a controversy among honest scientists outside the Lobby?

Of course, there was and there is, but the Lobby has done a good job of branding the contrarians as tools of industry.  It is important, therefore, to come to terms with evidence that scientists without connections to industry took similar positions.

For many years, starting in the late 1970s, Dr. Gerrit Schepers was a mainstay of the plaintiffs’ state-of-the-art case against asbestos mining and manufacturing companies in asbestos personal litigation.  Dr. Schepers testified as a hired expert witness for plaintiffs near and far.  I encountered and crossexamined Dr. Schepers on several occasions, for different clients.  He was a fascinating witness, filled with contradictions and mixed motives.  In one particularly horrible mesothelioma case (Hill v. Carey Canada), I confronted Dr. Schepers with his own publication, from 1973, in which he largely exonerated chrysotile as a carcinogen.  Dr. Schepers twisted and turned, but he really had no where to go to avoid the full force of his own statements.  This publication is worth revisiting as an historical document, to show that there was a good deal of dissent from the Lobby’s positions, at least until the asbestos personal injury and property damage litigations mushroomed out of control in the early 1980s.

Here is what Dr. Schepers wrote, in 1973, while an employee of the United States government (Chief of the Medical Service, Veterans Administration, Lebanon, Pa.):

“There are marked differences between the capacities of the individual classes of silicate minerals to provoke responses in human and animal tissues. There also are major misconceptions as to what these substances can do when inhaled by man or other mammals. Two of the most extreme of these are (1) that all siliceous minerals are equally pathogenic and (2) that there is even the least semblance between the effects of the asbestiform and the non-asbestiform silicates.”

Gerrit W. H. Schepers, M.D. D.Sc., “The Biological Action of Talc and Other Silicate Minerals,” at 54, in Aurel Goodwin, Proceedings of the symposium on talc: U.S. Bureau of Mines; Information Circular 8639 (1974) [available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/56461314].  The symposium was sponsored by the United States Department of the Interior, in May 1973. Recall that the dispute of non-asbestiform amphibole health effects was very much at issue in the Reserve Mining case, and the trial proceedings were about to start when Dr. Schepers delivered his paper, in 1973. Members of the Lobby, from Selikoff on down, were very much involved in the Reserve Mining case.  See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency v. Reserve Mining Co., 514 F.2d 492 (8th Cir. 1975) (en banc).

“Is chrysotile a carcinogen? This is a very perplexing question. A crescendo of popular opinion has sought to incriminate chrysotile. This author remains unconvinced.  The main premise for carcinogenicity stems from epidemiological observation of employees of the insulation and shipbuilding industries. In both these industries there has been in the past considerable exposure of pipe laggers to asbestos dust. Only in recent decades, however, have these insulation bats been composed predoninantly of chrysotile. In former years crocidolite and amosite were important components.

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Finally, it should be pointed out that the role of cigarette smoking has not been satisfactorily discounted in the referenced epidemiological studies of lung cancer among insulation workers. In some groups reported an excess prevalence of lung cancer was not demonstrable when cigarette smoking was taken into consideration. Epidemiological surveys of chrysotile workers in Quebec showed no excess of lung cancer. A review of pleural mesothiliomatosis in Canada also failed to focus attention on Quebec or any other center where chrysotile industries are concentrated.”

Id. at 70.

That was in 1973, but within a few years, Dr. Schepers was coopted by the asbestos plaintiff industry, which manufactured lawsuits and epistemic certainty about the hazards of all asbestos minerals.  The rest is “history.”

Interestingly, another would-be historian in the asbestos litigation, Dr. David S. Egilman, has written a paper, highly critical of W.R. Grace, based in part on another presentation given at the 1973 symposium, referenced above.  David Egilman, Wes Wallace, and Candace Hom, Corporate corruption of medical literature: Asbestos studies concealed by W. R. Grace & Co., 6 Accountability in Research 127 (1998)(citing a paper in the same volume by Dr. William E. Smith, “Experimental studies on biological effects of tremolite talc on hamsters.”).  Egilman’s paper was available at is website, http://www.egilman.com/Documents/publications/Wr_Grace.pdf The paper by Dr. Schepers no doubt missed Egilman’s attention, even though it follows immediately after Dr. Smith’s contribution.

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