The Real Asbestos Story
[The following appeared in a September 1990 Accuracy In Media Report] Link to my picture in Newsweek article here
THE REAL ASBESTOS HORROR STORY
In a little-noticed article in the Washington Monthly in March 1984, Jim Sibbison, a former press officer for the Environmental Protection Agency, boasted about how easy it was to use gullible reporters to spread scare messages. A former Associated Press reporter, Sibbison joined EPA in 1970, under Administrator William Ruckelshaus, and stayed there through 1981.
"One of the first things I learned in the job is that reporters take too much on faith what the government tells them," Sibbison wrote. "In those days, the idea was to get the media to help turn the EPA into an enforcer that struck fear into the heart of polluters... Few handouts, however, can be completely honest, and ours were no exception."
EPA press agents routinely wrote scare stories about "the hazards of chemicals, employing words like 'cancer' and 'birth defects' to splash a little cold water in reporters' faces..." Since "the effect of a variety of chemicals on the air we breathe and the water we drink isn't always immediately understandable to sophisticated scientists...how can reporters feel confident challenging what we tell them? We rarely saw any of them [the reporters who covered EPA] except at news conferences; most of the time they would simply consider the merits of the press releases we sent them by messenger, then rewrite them or toss them into the wastebasket."
Reporters as Dupes
Sibbison's story is pertinent today because it tells much about how the media were suckered into writing scare stories about asbestos. The press is doubly culpable. Most of these press-inspired fears now prove to be bogus. Yet the media are not nearly so eager to set the public record straight. Consequently, the largely unnecessary scare still could cost Americans more than a hundred billion dollars -- big money, even by S&L standards -- to rip asbestos out of schools and office and public buildings. Other costs -- in human lives as well as dollars -- are uncountable: these will come from an EPA-imposed ban on the use of asbestos anywhere -- as a fire retardant in insulation, in auto brake linings, or in pipes that keep water from becoming contaminated.
In a sense the press's failure to report adequately the asbestos story is similar to the hoax CBS's "60 Minutes" staged in February 1989 on Alar, the growth regulator used on apples. In both instances the media did hit- and-run journalism, building stories upon uncertain science, input from pressure outfits posing as "public interest groups," and ambitious politicians. The major difference is that the asbestos story stretched over two decades, and "asbestophobia" became deeply ingrained in the public psyche. Since it became clear that this was based on bad science, some newspapers and magazines have tried to undo the damage, but once again the truth has had a hard time overcoming error.
The EPA is now trying to undo some two decades of mischief, both by itself and by the media. Responding to local school officials who are suddenly faced with budget- busting asbestos removal costs, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly made a rare bureaucratic admission of past error in a speech on June 12 to the American Enterprise Institute. "Too often," Reilly said, "our priorities are set, not by our best judgment about relative levels of risk, but by public opinion..." Regulators and legislators alike, he continued, "can become absorbed in responding to public perceptions that are driven by the dramatic, the sensational, and the well-publicized?" He cited asbestos as an "excellent example of a clash between real risks and public perceptions." Even though the EPA has long insisted that removal of asbestos was "the only final solution" to the problem, Reilly declared, "The mere presence of asbestos poses no risk to human health," and he acknowledged that its removal might pose greater health risks than leaving it alone.
Panic Based On Bad Science
The asbestos scare began with a real tragedy -- the discovery that hundreds of persons who worked in World War II shipyards were developing lung cancer and other lung ailments at abnormal rates, and the blame was placed on asbestos. Then a larger study of some 18,000-installation workers supported these findings.
The studies had two serious flaws. First and foremost, they failed to distinguish between three different types of asbestos -- blue, brown and white. The shipyard workers handled a lot of the blue (crocidolite), which is imported from South Africa. Its fibers are needle-like and insoluble. They penetrate into the deep recesses of the lungs and stay there, irritating and scarring the tissues. It is a serious health hazard. Its use has been banned in Europe, but not in the U.S. It is now used to make cement pipe, and it constitutes about 2.5 percent of the asbestos we use. A second variety, the brown (arnosite), accounts for another 2.5 percent of our asbestos use. It is similar to the blue but appears to be less dangerous to health. It has not been banned either here or in Europe.
White asbestos (chrysotile) is very different. Its fibers are long and curly. They don't penetrate the lungs deeply, and they are expelled or dissolved. Epidemiological evidence shows that moderate exposure to white asbestos does not cause lung cancer or asbestosis. The July 1986 American Review of Respiratory Diseases reported a study of women living in Thetford Mines, an asbestos mining town in Quebec that is surrounded by mountains of tailings from the mines. These women, who don't work in the mines, are exposed to 250 to 500 times more ambient asbestos dust than the residents of the typical American city, but they show no higher incidence of respiratory disease. Miners exposed to light to moderate concentrations of fibers (average of 21 fibers per cc of air) showed no statistically significant incidence of disease. Those who were heavily exposed (95 to 194 fibers per cc) showed elevated levels of lung ailments, including cancer. Ninety- five percent of the asbestos used here and all the asbestos used in consumer products is the white variety, which has not been shown to pose any risk to consumers.
The other flaw in the shipyard studies was the failure to take account of the role of smoking. Nearly all the workers studied smoked. They were 50 to 90 times as likely to get lung cancer as those who didn't smoke. These flaws have resulted in all asbestos, including the relatively benign white, being blamed for ailments caused by blue and brown asbestos plus tobacco.
The Panic Promoters
Dan Rather tried to panic the residents of Duluth by reporting on March 15, 1975 that a Duluth resident had contracted mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer associated with asbestos. Rather said mining wastes containing asbestos had been poured into Lake Superior, the source of the city's water supply. The Duluth Herald found that that the man didn't have mesothelioma and that he was not a resident of any community using Lake Superior water for drinking. Furthermore, the wastes the mining company was dumping in the lake were taconite tailings that did not contain any asbestos. CBS finally aired a correction three months after AIM pointed out the falsity of the report, but it continued to promote asbestophobia. The scaremongers found a major conduit in Bill Plante of CBS News, who ran three major "warning stories" the first six months of 1978, plus several shorter stories. Summaries of the evening news broadcast show that Plante and other correspondents mixed in willy-nilly the stories about shipyard worker litigation and the supposed school dangers, without pausing to point out that two entirely different varieties of asbestos were involved.
Responding to public fears stirred by the heavily publicized flawed studies, Congressmen, bureaucrats and union officials seized on asbestos as an industrial evil that should be driven from the market place. Much of the scientific data came from Dr. Irving Selikoff of Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, who was a consultant for plaintiffs in many of the lawsuits. Selikoff's major "contribution" was his claim that a single fiber in a person's lung leads to cancer -- a claim never substantiated scientifically, but which nonetheless was seized upon by the scaremongers. Anthony Mazzocchi of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) did the bulk of the union work. Mazzocchi told Bettina Gregory of ABC News in September 1984 that asbestos filters are the "worst form of child molestation." (Mazzocchi also played a big role in pushing the claim of Karen Silkwood that she had been contaminated with plutonium because of lax safety measures at an Oklahoma processing plant; there was strong evidence that the contamination was self-inflicted.) A third major player was the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that profits from public panic.
Califano's Political Science
The pressure campaign succeeded. In September 1978 Joseph Califano, Jimmy Carter's secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, told an AFL-CIO conference, "On the basis of what we know today, it is estimated that 17 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States each year will be associated with previous exposure to asbestos." Since the cancer death toll was 365,000 in 1978, this meant 62,000 asbestos-related deaths in that year. Califano said that an estimated five million persons m "workers in asbestos plants, insulation workers, construction workers, steamfitters, carpenters, tile setters, auto mechanics and the like m breathe significant amounts of asbestos fibers each day." Califano implied that all these people risked dying from cancer. All three TV networks ran major segments on Califano's dire predictions.
Califano's figures came from an unsigned, mimedgraphed report released by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, which predicted 2 million premature cancer deaths over the next 30 years. This compared with earlier estimates of 2,000. No responsible author was ever identified, and the report was never submitted for peer review. In her new book, trashing the Earth, Dixy Lee Ray says that after some delay "a list of names from the responsible agencies was appended to the 'draft' as contributors." Two leading environmental cancer experts, Sir Richard Doll of Oxford University and Richard Peto, wrote a scorching critique of this paper in 1981. They said that the estimates were over ten times too high and that the paper appeared to have been written for "political rather than scientific reasons." They warned against taking seriously any argument based on this paper, even though the Occupational Health and Safety Administration were using it.
That same year, the Department of Labor sharply revised Califano's figure downward, to 8,000 to 10,000 a year; subsequent studies steadily put the "toll" even lower. In 1984 a Canadian Royal Commission concluded in a three-volume study, "Asbestos in building air will almost never pose a health hazard to building occupants." A New Jersey study group reported to that state's governor the same year, "There are no documented cases of lung cancer associated with low-level asbestos exposure over a lifetime." And Sir Richard Doll, one of the world's leading cancer experts, estimated in 1985 that "asbestos in buildings is responsible for approximately one death per year in the whole of Britain." A comparable figure for the U.S. would be five deaths per year compared to the 62,000- plus estimated by Califano.
Mommy Vigilante Mob
Scare-blame can be spread evenly throughout the media. Good Housekeeping magazine ran an article, "I Saved My Family from Asbestos Contamination" by a woman who suffered "many sleepless nights" after discovering that asbestos was wrapped around some pipes in her basement. Where had she learned to fear asbestos? From an earlier Good Housekeeping article. After several thousand frantic words about her panic, she broke the good news: no asbestos fibers had been found in her house. People magazine weighed in also: "Discovering That Their Home Is Walled With Asbestos, A Florida Family Flees The Dangerous Dust." No harm reported, but they moved anyway. USA Today warned in 1989, "There's a killer in the corridors, gyms or boiler rooms of 40,000 schools across the USA."
Michael Bennett was one of the few reporters who took a hard look at the EPA scare campaign. Writing for the Detroit News in 1985, Bennett turned up an internal EPA study, which said the mere presence of asbestos in schools was not necessarily hazardous, that encapsulation was safer than removal. EPA's own figures estimated that sloppy asbestos removal would almost certainly cause 4,414 cancer deaths. EPA withheld the study from Congress; when Bennett revealed the contents, bureaucrats lamely claimed it had not been subjected to peer review.
Perhaps more damning was the EPA lawyer who confided to Bennett why the agency campaigned so furiously for asbestos controls -- "the theory behind all this is to whip the mothers up into a vigilante mob to storm the school committee to do something." Bennett's articles should have been a klaxon warning to the media that something was seriously askew at EPA. Editors at the Detroit News tried to syndicate them for national distribution. No other papers were interested. As Bennett told us, "It was as if they dropped into a black hole. The truth was there, had anyone been interested." [Bennett has expanded his research into a book, The Asbestos Racket, which will be published this fall. We plan to make it available to AIM members.]
No network aired a story on any of these studies. Instead, they kept up a drumbeat of stories about asbestos dangers. And in 1986 Congress passed the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), which ordered EPA to set up an inspection program intended to get asbestos out of approximately 773,000 school, commercial and public buildings. Cost estimates range from EPA's $53 billion to $150 billion by industry.
Many manufacturers were forced or cowed into abandoning using asbestos in their products even though it posed no hazard. Columnist Warren Brookes of the Detroit News has pointed out that this probably brought about the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. An asbestos-based putty produced by the Fuller O'Brien Paint Co. had been used, together with O-rings, to seal joints in the booster rockets. They quit making the putty because of the new requirements regulating the use of asbestos, and less effective putty was substituted. NASA reported in 1985 that after the putty was changed four of the first 12 shuttle flights experienced O-ring erosion from superheated gases that should have been stopped by the putty. It predicted possible launch failure as a result. Brookes noted that the National Research Council panel on redesign of the booster rockets agreed that "the inability of the (new) putty...reliably to effect a pressure seal" was a major problem." Malcolm Ross of the U.S. Geological Survey, who pioneered in the fight for sanity on asbestos, told Brookes, "There is no doubt in my mind that the Challenger disaster was caused by asbestos paranoia."
The media did a fair amount of reporting on asbestos the decade after passage of AHERA, chiefly about "rip and run" companies, which got removal contracts, hired illegal immigrants who couldn't speak English as their work force, and sent clouds of asbestos dust billowing into the air. Brian Ross of "NBC Nightly News" tried hard last November to hold megabuck builder Donald Trump responsible for one of his many sub-contractors using a "rip and run" company for a demolition project. Ross's two-part series consumed 12 minutes 20 seconds, an eternity for network news. But NBC and the other two TV networks ignored two major developments concerning asbestos, which put into doubt much of the regulatory and journalistic effort of the past twenty years.
The Ignored Reports
The first report was published in August 1989 concerning a symposium, "Health Aspects of Exposure to Asbestos in Buildings," held at the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The Harvard group said that asbestos fears were "out of proportion to the existing public health risk." It maintained that "fiber phobia" --the old one-fiber-causes-cancer theory -- was causing administrators to divert badly needed school money to unneeded removal. The report stated, "Using conservative [i.e., pessimistic] assumptions, mesothelioma and lung-cancer risk projections from exposure to indoor asbestos for school-age children and the general population were generally agreed by all the symposium participants to be quite small."
Average levels of airborne asbestos where the asbestos was intact were found to be "extremely low." Removing asbestos increased risks to removal workers and building occupants. Thus the emphasis should be on containment, not removal.
The Harvard study prompted major stories in newspapers -- but no mention on any network evening news show. (By contrast, Bill Plante of CBS had given two minutes ten seconds in June 1978 to a New York symposium on asbestos dangers. Fear sells better than fact on networks, apparently.) Plante and his TV colleagues also shunned the second major report, which was published in the Jan. 19, 1990 issue of Science magazine. The authors were Dr. Brooke T. Mossman of the University of Vermont medical school, and four other eminent researchers. The report amplified the Harvard findings and blamed "panic...fueled by unsupported concepts as the 'one fiber theory'...As a result of public pressure, asbestos is often removed haphazardly from schools and public buildings even though most damaged [asbestos containing material] is in boiler rooms and other areas which are inaccessible to students and residents." Mossman put the risk in perspective with these estimates of deaths per million:
Asbestos exposure in schools 0.005 to 0.093 Whooping cough vaccination 1 to 6 High school football 10 Drowning (ages 5 to 14) 27 Motor vehicle accidents (ages 5 to 14) 32 Home accidents (ages 1 to 14) 60 Long-term smoking 1,200
As noted, these studies were not mentioned on a single TV network evening newscast. The print media did better: papers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times ran major stories.
NY Times Still Skeptical
Nonetheless, science writer William K. Stevens of The New York Times published a long story on June 26 which tried to cast doubt on the new studies by saying they were "sowing doubt and confusion about how to deal with asbestos in schools and other buildings." Stevens quoted "some public health officials" as expressing "fears that the new debate over asbestos risks was threatening efforts to contain known asbestos hazards."
The 22-paragraph story gave only five graphs to the skeptics and one of those was an "identification" graph listing credentials of the Mossman team. Stevens also wrote that there is "general agreement" that "chrysotile...causes cancer when injected into animals.... " Malcolm Ross says this statement is nonsense. He notes that such injection tests on laboratory animals are frequently cited as "proof" that asbestos causes cancer. He writes, "These experiments strongly suggest that if ground-up rock were similarly administered, a significant number of animals would develop tumors. The ability is at hand to prove that the earth is a carcinogen!"
There are a couple of ironies to the asbestos story. The Congressional push for the school asbestos ban came from then-Rep. James Florio (D., N.J.), who a year ago was elected governor. Florio had a crash course in fiscal reality when he had to find money to pay for the asbestos control programs he loudly advocated as a congressman. Florio put asbestos abatement activities for state buildings "on hold" for the 1990 fiscal year because of budget strains; his budget also cut state money for asbestos abatement programs in school.
And the building that houses the NBC Washington bureau and its WRC-TV affiliate was in chaos in late summer because of asbestos removal, with offices shrouded with protective materials, and correspondents working from temporary desks. The network that had never reported the other part of the Big Asbestos Scare thus was going through some of the discomfort that bad reporting helped bring to much of the rest of America.
What You Can Do
Send the enclosed postcard, or write your own letter, to Eric Ober, the new president of CBS News, urging that CBS News, and especially "60 Minutes," undo past damage and inform the public that asbestos is not the dire threat to health that it has been portrayed.
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OUR STORY ON ASBESTOS IN THIS ISSUE IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF THE EXPOSE OF THE exploitation of flawed science by the environmental extremists. Malcolm Ross, a mineralogist at the U.S. Geological Survey, knew something that the EPA and other involved agencies had overlooked -- that all asbestos fibers are not alike. Epidemiological studies have confirmed that the white asbestos (chrysotile) does not pose the same degree of health problem as the blue (crocidolite) and the brown (amosite). Ross tells me that the U.S. has not banned imports of the most dangerous type, the blue, because some government officials don't want to admit that the white asbestos is far less dangerous. They want to maintain the fiction that all three types are equally dangerous and their use should be equally restricted or phased out. Another subject: two articles in the latest issue of Science attacking the methods that have been used to test chemicals for carcinogenicity by feeding large doses to laboratory animals threaten much of the EPA's regulatory rationale. The National Academy of Sciences has been persuaded that critics of the testing methods have a good case, and its committee on risk assessment will be looking into it this month.