The Selikoff – Castleman Conspiracy

In previous posts about the late Irving Selikoff, I have discussed his iconic status as a scientist who battled corporate evil, to make the workplace and the environment safe from asbestos.  The truth is much murkier than this fabled narrative.

Selikoff and his cadre fueled cancerphobia, billions of dollars spent on asbestos abatement, irrational regulations that applied equally to all asbestos mineral types, demonization of legitimate industrial uses of chrysotile, and ultimately the wasting of American industry by asbestos litigation.

His conduct in these activities calls for greater scrutiny than has been accorded by journalists and historians.  The difficult case of Irving Selikoff is an instructive parable of the dangers of mixed motives and scientific enthusiasms.

Some might think that we should let bygones be bygones.  Perhaps, but that attitude did not spare the memory of Sir Richard Doll.  His death brought out the daggers and the yutzballs.  See, e.g., Samuel Epstein, “Richard Doll, An Epidemiologist Gone Awry” (visited on March 13, 2011); Sarah Boseley, “Renowned cancer scientist was paid by chemical firm for 20 years,” The Guardian (Dec. 8, 2006).

Now, imagine if a tobacco industry consultant wrote to a scientist and told him that plaintiffs were looking for important data to help them in their lawsuits, and that it was essential that these claimants not get what they were looking for.  In many courtrooms, such correspondence would be prima facie evidence of a conspiracy.  In the public forum, such evidence would tarnish the reputation of the scientist who engaged with the correspondent about suppressing evidence and refusing to cooperate with lawful discovery.

Now consider the case of Barry Castleman, consulting and testifying witness to the asbestos plaintiff industry.  Hired gun Castleman appears to have written Dr Selikoff in 1979, in the early days of the asbestos litigation, and urged him to not cooperate with lawful efforts of Johns-Manville to obtain evidence of the insulators’ union knowledge of the hazards of asbestos.  I found the memorandum from Castleman to Selikoff, “Defense Attorneys’ Efforts to Use Background Files of Selikoff-Hammond Studies to Avert Liability,” dated November 5, 1979, in a document archive at the University of California, San Francisco, The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.  The document is now also available at Scribd

Because of its provenance, I cannot be absolutely sure of the document’s authenticity, but it certainly has the ring of truth. It was uploaded to the UCSF archive over a decade ago.  Presumably, if false, Castleman, or one of Selikoff’s intellectual heirs would have sued for its removal.  Perhaps someone can help me determine whether Barry Castleman, in his many testimonial adventures, has ever been confronted with this document.

Here is the text of the Castleman memorandum:

Memorandum from Barry Castleman to Irving Selikoff

November 5, 1979

Subject : Defense Attorneys’ Efforts to Use Background Files of Selikoff-Hammond Studies to Avert Liability

Ron Motley informs me that the industry lawyers are hoping to get cases thrown out of court by showing that the insulators themselves knew about their job risks.  The defendants hope to obtain the questionnaire materials used by you and Dr. Hammond, in the expectation of finding reference to when the men said they first became aware of the dangers of their trade. Ron and other plaintiffs lawyers are afraid that some of the men would have answered with 20-20 hindsight, recalling vaguely that “I heard something back in the early 40’s”.

Discovery of such statements in writing, even though made without much care and without any knowledge that rights to compensation might be jeopardized, without any consultation with their attorneys, could throw out individual claims; further,  a significant number of such statements pre-1964 would hurt the state of the art case for all the plaintiffs.

I don’t know what kinds of things might be found in your files and those of ACS (Dr . Hammond) but it strikes me as most important to hold these files confidential and resist efforts to get them released to the defendants. Among other things, the release of such materials could impair your ability to obtain the cooperation of the insulation workers and other trade unions who desparately [sic] need your services. From the urgency of Ron’s efforts to find me to raise this issue, I gather that defense efforts to gain access to your files is an imminent and serious possibility.

I will try to call in a week or so with more information, and to discuss this matter directly with you.

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Attached are the latest discoveries and notes thereon from Vorwald’s files and the Industrial Health Foundation . We now have the correspondence to shav that Ken Smith and Ivan Sabourin edited the Braun-Truan study prior to publication.  The exchange on S-M Waukegan worker Dominic Bertogliat shows that J-M was aware that workers exposed only to the general in-plant atmosphere were in some cases developing severe asbestosis (1948).

What is interesting is that there is no reply memorandum from Dr Selikoff, to point out “Mr. Castleman, that would be wrong; all parties are entitled to the evidence, and I am not here to help insulators avoid the legal consequences of their own negligence, if negligence it be.”  I would like to think that there is such a reply memorandum in the Selikoff archives, but personally, I doubt it.  Perhaps someone who has control over the archives would come forward with the missing documents.

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