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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
November 12, 2002


The Rip-Out Rip-Off

Following the item that I posted in May on the role that baseless asbestos hysteria played in hastening the collapse of the WTC towers and the Challenger shuttle disaster, several people have been in touch to say that they weren't aware the asbestos panic was scam, and requesting more details.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Irving Selikoff of the Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, published a study of lung cancers among insulation workers. Although the figures indicted cigarette smoking as the primary culprit by far, media accounts played up the asbestos connection and hyped the "one-fiber-can-kill" theory, that any amount is dangerous--a much-repeated but false dogma, as was known even by the Swiss physician Paracelsus in the 16th century, who enunciated that "The dose makes the poison." By 1978 the ensuing misrepresentations and exaggerations formed the basis of an OSHA report that predicted 58,000 to 73,000 cancer deaths each year from asbestos, on the basis of which the government upped its estimate of industry-related cancers from 2 percent to 40 percent. A full-blown epidemic had become reality, and the witch-hunt was on. Mining in the US Southwest ceased. Over a dozen companies were forced into bankruptcy by tens of thousands of tort cases, clogging the courts and costing thousands of jobs. An Emergency Response Act was passed by Congress mandating removal from over 700,000 schools and other buildings, worded such as to levy the cost on the school system, diverting tens of billions of dollars away from education. Many private and parochial schools were forced to close.

Yet ten years later the forecast of 58,000 -- 73,000 deaths had been reduced to 13 -- 15 (yes, a dozen odd, not thousands), which an appeals court threw out because the EPA was unable to their satisfaction to substantiate even that figure. But by then a lucrative legal and removal industry worth an estimated $150--200 billion had come into being that many interests were not about to let go away, so the country continued to witness such absurdities as space-suited OSHA workers conducting tests among unprotected children in school buildings where the fiber content of the air was higher outside, and airborne asbestos measuring up to 40,000 times higher after the insulation was torn out than it had been before--and remaining so for months afterward.

But it turns out that 95 percent of the asbestos used in the US and Canada, and 100 percent of that mined there, is the "chrysotile," or "white" form, well suited to building insulation, auto brake linings, cement, and the like on account of its strength and fire resistance. It consists of a tubular fiber that is dissolved and expelled by the lungs, and represents a negligible cancer hazard--21,500 times less than cigarettes, according to a Harvard study. Exposure over many years to the high concentrations that existed in the unregulated workplace in times gone by can, it is true, lead to the lung condition known as asbestosis, where the tissue becomes fibrous and ceases functioning. But similar problems exist with heavy concentrations of coal or silica dust, baking flour, or any other dusty environment, whatever the material.

The other significant form is crocidolite, also known as"blue" asbestos, a hard, needlelike fiber that lodges in the tissues and is deadly. As little as 3 months of exposure can result in fatal cancers not only of the lungs but also the body cavities. It is mined only in South Africa, and was used during the 1930s and 40s in such demanding areas as warships, causing cancers among shipyard workers that became apparent only in later years. So the true problem, while real, is one of the past.

But the EPA legislators ignored this distinction and classified all asbestos equally as a carcinogen, despite being told of these differences in scientific reports submitted in 1978, 1979, and 1984, and severe criticism from Science and The Lancet. Sir Richard Doll, the Oxford epidemiologist who proved the causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, wrote of their decision "No arguments based even loosely on [these estimates] should be taken seriously. It seems likely that whoever wrote the OSHA paper did so for political rather than scientific reasons." Quite perspicacious, possibly. In the late 1980s, the EPA director involved became president of one of the largest asbestos abatement companies in the United States.

A statistician who helped produce the original OSHA paper later lamented of the fiasco, "We did what scientists so often do, which was to use . . . estimates without questioning them." Wrong. It's what regulators bent on advancing a political ideology do, not real scientists interested in facts.

Two references:

The Asbestos Racket: An Environmental Parable, by Michael J. Bennet, Merril Press, 1991. The author is former deputy public information director of OSHA, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his series on asbestos in the Detroit News.

Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, Jay H. Lehr, (Ed.), Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY, 1992.

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