When the World Trade Center was being built in 1973, Dr. Irving Selikoff, an expert on asbestosis and cancers caused by asbestos, was an outspoken critic of the wholesale spraying of the floors of the two structures with insulator containing copious quantities of asbestos for fire-proofing.  He knew the potential dangerous hazards of asbestos as did the asbestos industry.  Fortunately not all floors were insulated because New York City instituted a ban on the spraying of asbestos in the same year.  Fast forward almost 30 years when the plumes of dust rolled over lower Manhattan after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.  The brave souls that rushed to help survivors and participate in the cleanup along with the many people that lived and worked in the area were exposed to one of the most serious carcinogens ever documented – asbestos in its many forms.  One of the most deadly results of inhaling the tiny asbestos fibers that permeated the World Trade Center clouds is the nearly always fatal cancer mesothelioma (known to be caused only by asbestos).  Unfortunately, the cancer often shows up decades after exposure.  What many people do not realize is that asbestos has still not been banned in the United States even though the asbestos community has known internally since at least the 1930s that it was not only harmful but deadly.  The asbestos executives and their hired doctors promulgated a disinformation campaign that asbestos was and is harmless knowing full well that these claims were patently wrong1.

Selikoff first came to prominence in 1964 when he organized an international symposium on the “Biological Effects of Asbestos” through the New York Academy of Sciences.  Selikoff, through his position as the director of the Environmental Sciences Laboratory at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, was able to persuade the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators & Asbestos Workers union to provide him with workers’ medical profiles2.  He presented four papers at the conference on the results of his epidemiological studies of the union workers.  There was no mistaking his results — working with asbestos insulation caused an increase in death by 25 percent from not only mesothelioma but asbestosis, lung cancer and even cancers of the stomach, colon and rectum.  His independent research could not be buried by the asbestos industry as they had with their subsidized research, and Selikoff’s results were reported widely in the press.  Selikoff’s team even found that insulator workers who smoked were ninety times more likely to get some form of asbestos-related cancer than those workers that did not smoke.

I don’t want to appear sanctimonious, but the dangers due to asbestos Selikoff and others reported in 1964 should have caused the asbestos industry pause – maybe even force them to attempt to improve working conditions.  But as in other industries with similar threats, the asbestos executives circled the wagons and then went on the offensive.  The Asbestos Textile Institute’s lawyers (the asbsetos industry’s public relation’s arm to promote asbestos products) sent letters to the New York Academy of Sciences and Selikoff warning them about the impact of their “damaging and misleading news stories”.  Their smear campaigns began by attacking Selikoff’s medical credentials and the quality of his work.   For years, the asbestos industry stalked Selikoff and others at conferences and meetings attempting to undermine their work.   More details can be found in Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedle’s outstanding book entitled Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival.  

It is astounding the lengths the asbestos industry went to suppress information they deemed adverse and to circulate disinformation cranked out by their hired doctors and researchers.  Asbestos executives also turned to the largest public relations firm in the world – Hill & Knowlton – a sort of hit squad of lawyers with a ubiquitous presence in undermining science damaging to their clients which included Big Tobacco3.  But perhaps what can only be described as turpitude, the companies led the disinformation campaigns while laborers in a whole slew of industries from mining to textiles worked in deplorable conditions that caused sickness and death.  In the Libby mine in Montana, for example, not only was fibrous asbestos dust so thick in some areas of the open-pit mine it was hard for workers to see each other.  The dust blew into the nearby town causing asbestos illness and death to residents (the Libby mine was eventually closed due to the huge number of tort claims by families struck by illness and death related to the operations).  It was common for the industry to fire workers that developed asbestosis or cancer to avoid the appearance of illnesses related to asbestos.  When it became clear to the industry that mesothelioma was a serious public relations nightmare, their public relation’s machine went into full overdrive focusing on two strategies.  1) Reassuring people that asbestos-related diseases were caused only by the inhalation of large amounts of fiber dust over long periods of time (internal memorandums clearly show that the companies involved knew this was not true).  2) Foisting the argument on the public that mesothelioma was the result of blue asbestos and that other types of asbestos, such as chrysotile, were safe (once again, internal memorandums show that the companies knew this to be patently untrue).

The diagram below shows the world production numbers for asbestos from 1900 through 2015.  One might think that the asbestos industry would have been crippled by Selikopf’s research reported in 1964.  But production actually increased through the 1960s and went on increasing into the late 1970s before tort claims began to impact the industry.  But even today, worldwide production has not decreased below the early 1960s output due mostly to production in developing nations.  The diagram is a testimonial to the success of the asbestos industry’s ability to undermine solid scientific research with political clout and the financial resources to promote their agenda – asbestos is safe.  We have seen the same thing in many other industries like Big Tobacco with smoking and Exxon with global warming.  McCulloch and Tweedle make a salient point: “Put another way, nearly 80 per cent [sic] of world asbestos production in the twentieth century was produced after the world learned that asbestos could cause mesothelioma!”

Asbestos2Data from Virta4 for 1900 through 2003, Virta for 2004 through 2006 (consumption), and Statista for 2007 through 2015.

Imagine that you are the mayor of a small town dependent on tourism, and doctors in the village are reporting an outbreak of a bacterial disease that is killing 40 percent of those being infected.  You decide that reporting the disease to the CDC or WHO would harm the financial health of your town and you seek to suppress the seriousness of the outbreak.  You tell tourists they have nothing to worry about and chastise the local news affiliates by telling them they are acting hysterically and causing undue panic.  Would anyone deny that you are guilty of a serious criminal act?  This is essentially what the asbestos industry did over many decades, and yet no one in the asbestos industry has served a day jail time for their actions.  In fact, they were so successful in their disinformation campaign that even  today as mentioned above asbestos is not banned in the US even though cheap substitutes exist and asbestos has been banned in other industrial nations such as France and Britain.  I asked Dr. Jock McCulloch why and his response is telling: “There is no easy answer to your question nor to the adjacent one as to why 2 million tons of asbestos will be mined and used globally during 2016. One of the key factors has been the corporate corruption of the science (which began in the 1930s) and the other is the baleful behaviour of Canada at international forums- due in the main to federal/Quebec politics. And then there is Russia, its political climate and anti-western reflexes.”  Both Canada and Russia have been and are huge producers of asbestos and Canada with the help of scientists at McGill University funded by the asbestos industry (one of the reasons why scientists should remain independent in their research) has been instrumental in persuading other governments to act gingerly against asbestos interests.

Distressing research now shows that trivial exposure to asbestos can cause cancers.  The Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould died of cancer caused by asbestos fibers perhaps from asbestos within ceiling tiles.  Actor Steve McQueen died at the age 50 from mesothelioma probably from asbestos exposure when he worked in a break repair shop (breaks are lined with asbestos).   Many instances of cancer among family members of miners and other laborers in the asbestos industry have been attributed to exposure to asbestos fibers brought home on clothing.  I think about the lives destroyed by asbestos when I read the words of McCulloch and Tweedle:  “Central to the strategy was a policy of concealment and, at times, misinformation that often amounted to a conspiracy to continue selling asbestos fibre irrespective of the health risks.”  I might add that attempts to force the asbestos industry to warn their workers about the dangers of asbestos were averted.  And although most mining and manufacturing has moved out of industrialized nations, the developing world has picked up the slack — places like Swaziland where laborers have few protections and little legal recourse for compensation from asbestos illnesses.  Records through litigation have turned up showing that industry officials thought black workers were far less sophisticated than those in the US or Europe about hazards to their health and sought to take advantage of them.

Stephen_Jay_Gould_2015,_portrait_(unknown_date) Stephen Jay Gould Steve_McQueen_1959Steve McQueen

Sadly, the large asbestos companies (18 in all) were able to avoid paying thousands of tort claims in the US by declaring bankruptcy through Chapter 11.  Bankruptcy implies that a company is insolvent, but due to the Manville Amendment passed by Congress in 1994 to help the asbestos industry, companies only need to show that future liabilities exceed the assets of the company in order to declare bankruptcy.  The insurance companies pulled a similar “fast one” by shuttling liabilities into shell companies that also declared bankruptcy.   I am very much for free and open trade but companies should be held responsible for travesties, and the bankruptcy claims are tantamount to highway robbery in my humble opinion.  Many of those who lost out on benefits and claims were already on the edge of poverty from unemployment and the medical costs from their ailments.  I might also point out that the American taxpayer is the ultimate source of support to these workers and their families because the asbestos companies were able to weasel their way out of their responsibilities to their employees and/or those harmed by their products.  It may be important to remind the reader that it is estimated that between 15 to 35 million homes contain Libby asbestos as insulation.  Asbestos is a problem that is not going away quickly.

I understand that industries like asbestos employ a large number of people (at one time in the 1960s, more than 200,000 people worked in the asbestos industry) and many of these workers would have difficulties finding new jobs elsewhere if the industries were closed overnight.  But there are various steps that should be taken based on what we have learned from the asbestos travesty when future industries are found to be responsible for harm to their workers.  1) It should be a crime to purposely mislead the public and/or workers on safety issues of products.  This must include the purposeful undermining of peer-reviewed science.  The penalties should be stiff and include jail time.  Laws need to be enacted accordingly.  2) Workers and their families need to be informed of the dangers in clear language in order that they may decide whether they wish to take the risk of continued employment in the industry.   3) In cases like asbestos where it is clearly a dangerous hazard, the product should be phased out by substitution of other products and eventually banned.   4) Workers and those impacted by the product should be entitled to compensatory damages through the establishment of funds in negotiations with the government.  5) And finally, American companies should be prohibited from moving their operations to nations that have lax laws that permit workers to be exposed to the hazardous products.  If corporate America can’t police itself (and I don’t think they can based on the tales of woe involving tobacco, pesticides, global warming, etc.) the government must step in.

  1. McCulloch, J. and Tweedale, G. (2008) Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival: Oxford University Press
  2. Selikoff recruited Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond who had already published his landmark research on the link between smoking and lung cancer
  3. Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. M. (2010) Merchants of Doubt: Bloomsbury Press
  4. Virta, R. L. (2006) Worldwide Asbestos Supply and Consumption Trends from 1900 through 2003: USGS Circular 1298

Disinformation has become a hallmark of companies and religious sects interested in undermining science.  Please note that I have used disinformation instead of misinformation because these organizations have purposefully spread wrong or bad information to mislead the public and cloud issues discovered by science.  The most famous example comes from the tobacco industry.  Richard Kluger’s book Ashes to Ashes1 won the Pulitzer prize and helped expose the ruse that nicotine is not harmful or addictive.   The tobacco industry funded hundreds of scientific research projects in an attempt to muddy the waters concerning the health risks of smoking.  Who will ever forget the seven CEOs of America’s largest tobacco companies swearing in front of Congress in 1994 that nicotine is not addictive (still on Youtube if you care to reminisce).   One of the leading examples of the travesty was the funding of the Harvard Center for Tobacco Research.  Big Tobacco, through its Council for Tobacco Research, gave millions of dollars to the Center and Dr. Gary Huber2

In a more recent exposé, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru showed in their book League of Denial how the National Football League actively downplayed the seriousness of trauma to the head3.  For example, to offset concern over head injuries, the NFL and commissioner Paul Tagliabue set up the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (MTBI) in 1994.  The committee was notorious for denying that concussions did not lead to serious effects.  In 2003, the committee began publishing what would amount to 16 research papers in the coopted science journal Neurosurgery, supporting their contention that the concussion problem was minor.  It certainly helped that the Neurosurgery editor, Michael L. J. Apuzzo, was a major NFL fan4.  The MTBI fuzzy logic included statements such as: “A total of 92% of concussed players returned to practice in less than seven days … More than one-half of the players returned to play within one day, and symptoms resolved in a short time in the vast majority of cases.”   During the same period independent research was discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased football players that had suffered numerous concussions throughout their careers.

Then there is the whole creationist movement which has attempted to undermine science through such organizations as the Institute for Creation Research.  There is neither space nor time to delve into the movement’s attempts to promote creationism and more recently intelligent design.   If you want to read a riveting account of one of the recent battle fronts pick up a copy of Monkey Girl by Edward Humes5.  It documents the attempt by the Dover School Board to demand the teaching of intelligent design in science classes which resulted in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District legal brouhaha.

Does this sound familiar?  Exxon (now ExxonMobile) formed the Global Climate Coalition in the 1980s to lobby congress and actively dispute the claim that global warming was not caused by anthropic greenhouse gases6.  The organization shut down in 2001 under pressure from numerous groups, but by then, the term global warming had morphed into a political issue entrenched in right-wing politics.    But the time may be coming for ExxonMobile to pay up for its disinformation campaign.  More than a dozen state attorney generals are investigating ExxonMobile for attempting to obfuscate the facts about global warming.  The New York Times reported in March that new documents published by the activist group Center for International Environmental Law shows that  Exxon knew about the dangers of global warming from carbon dioxide through its own research as far back as 1957 and established a campaign that doggedly fought air pollution control.

Admittedly, politics always baffles me.  The science of global warming via anthropic greenhouse gases seems so obvious that I have trouble seeing how the issue could become such a heated-cantankerous argument.  Let me briefly outline the science and you decide.  I have no ax to grind in the debate.  I tend to favor middle of the road solutions.  What I am more interested in is how the issue could ever become hijacked by politics.  If you are the kind of person whose eyes glaze over when you see graphs, hang in there because it is all pretty straight forward.  Before we dig in, let me remind you of a phrase Thomas Henry Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog, said: “My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations… Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

Wavelength is plotted below on the x-axis (which is broken down into UV, visible, and infrared radiation) and the spectral intensity is plotted on the y-axis.  The red curve (top panel) represents the span of wavelengths transmitted by the sun and received at the top of the earth’s atmosphere.  Scientists refer to the electromagnetic radiation that comes from the sun as Planck black body radiation because they can reproduce it by heating an opaque non-reflective body (a black body) to a temperature of 5,525 degrees Kelvin.  The red region represents the extent of radiation that is received at the earth’s surface (i.e., not absorbed).  Note that most of the UV radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere (mostly due to the ozone layer fortunately) and most of the visible spectrum gets through.  Animals have evolved to “see” in the visible spectrum almost certainly because light comes to us in this range of the spectrum.

Atmospheric_TransmissionGlobal Warming Art, Wikipedia

The average Planck black body radiation of the earth is represented by the blue curve (255 degrees Kelvin)7   The blue area filled in under the blue curve is the amount of radiation from the earth that escapes into space (emitted by the top of the atmosphere) which is equal to about 15 to 30% transmission.  Virtually all of the near to far infrared is absorbed by greenhouse gasses shown in the panels in the above diagram for each of the gases.  Water plays the biggest role but carbon dioxide has an impact on the far infrared.  You can see this better in the diagram below.


Relatively small increases in carbon dioxide have a profound affect on the absorption of radiation (energy).  In fact, it is so sensitive that carbon dioxide closely follows the temperature changes during the past glacial cycles — the last 420,000 years are shown below.  As you can see, we are in an interglacial warming period and, under normal nonanthropic conditions would expect to enter another ice age in about 10,000 years8.  I should mention that carbon dioxide concentrations were measured from Vostock ice cores taken from Antarctica (the ice traps air bubbles locking in atmospheric concentrations).  Temperatures in the same cores were determined from hydrogen and oxygen isotopes9 10.


Now here is one of the most astounding graphs in environmental science – carbon dioxide and temperature over about the last 20,000 years11.   It shows global temperature in the blue curve relative to the Holocene mean between 6.5 and 11.5 thousand years ago (LGM is the last glacial maximum).  The red curve is an Antarctic composite core temperature profile.  Carbon dioxide concentrations (yellow dots) start to rise as we come out of the last glacial cycle along with temperature about 18,000 years ago and continue to rise until about 8,000 years ago when they become stable (temperature – red curve – and carbon dioxide in the cores lag a bit behind global temperature – blue curve).  Note that carbon dioxide concentrations have stabilized at about 260 ppm (parts per million) over the last 8,000 years or more (the current carbon dioxide changes are too new to be picked up in the cores).

natureShakun et al., 2012

Compare the graphs above to the carbon dioxide data measured directly from Hawaii since 1957 below.  The concentrations went above 400 ppm in 2015 (the annual variations are due to higher output in carbon dioxide by vegetation during the summer in the northern hemisphere – more land in the north), 140 ppm over the average of the last 8,000 years shown in the above diagram.  It is important to point out that carbon dioxide concentrations have not reached this level in more than 3 million years12!


And here is why scientists think that humans are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide increase.  The graph is of temperature from 1880 (annual mean compared to the average between 1951 to 1980).  The red line is a five-year running average.  Temperature begins to increase significantly when carbon dioxide concentrations reach about 340 ppm in the mid 1970s.   The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and consists of thousands of the world’s finest scientific minds contributing to their reports.  The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report which was completed in 2014, stated: “It is extremely likely [90 to 100% probability in their words] that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since 1950, with the level of confidence having increased since the fourth report”.


So why all the fuss?  Even if we admit that carbon dioxide and global temperatures are rising (and they are also rising in the ocean because carbon dioxide and heat are absorbed from the atmosphere), is this devastating for the future of the world?  To be honest, no one knows for sure.  I could list a plethora of examples of the impact from these changes – sea level rise, species habitats being pushed toward higher latitudes or higher elevations worldwide, ocean acidity, continued melting of the world’s glaciers, etc.   But the data that keeps me up at night (being overly dramatic here) is the tipping point.  Climate models show global temperatures rising between 1 to 2.5 degrees centigrade (1.8 to 4.5 degrees F) between 2050 and 2100.  We don’t know what might throw us into a tipping point – what Wagner and Weitzman call “tail effects” or “black swans” to designate statically low probability extreme events13.  They are referred to as tail events because they occur on the ends of a bell distribution curve (less than 2.1% in the figure below – greater than 2 standard deviations).  These events will be so potentially horrendous that we may not know how to combat them.

Wagner and Weitzman claim that tail events are “profound earth-as-we-know-it-altering changes”.  For example, they may lead to as much as a 30 percent decline in global economic output.  No one knows.  The only thing that is certain is that if we continue to ignore global warming and its effects, we are taking huge potential risks.


  1. Kluger, R. (1996) Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris: Vintage
  2. McGarity, T. O. and Wagner, W. E. (2012) Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research: Harvard University Press
  3. Fainaru-Wada, M. and Fainaru, S. (2013) League of Denial: Three Rivers Press
  4. Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru suggest that Apuzzo was drawn to the limelight of the NFL as the major reason for allowing dubious papers to be published by the MTBI
  5. Humes, E. (2007) Monkey Girl: HarperCollins Publishers
  6. The CCC was a major opponent to the Kyoto Protocol and was instrumental in persuading the US not to sign it
  7. The black curve is the upper atmosphere at 210 degrees Kelvin and the purple curve is the lower atmosphere near the earth’s surface at 310 degrees Kelvin.
  8. Novacek, M. (2007) Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem — and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  9. The ratio of hydrogen isotopes has a linear relationship with temperature.  The hydrogen isotope (hydrogen has one electron and deuterium has 2 electrons) is lighter than deuterium and preferentially evaporates relative to deuterium from seawater (it takes less energy to evaporate a water molecule with hydrogen than a molecule with deuterium).  In periods of high temperature, more water evaporates concentrating deuterium in seawater relative to the atmosphere.  The relationship between hydrogen and deuterium in the atmosphere is recorded in snow as it falls and becomes part of the glacier sampled.  Temperatures are extrapolated from the ratio of the isotopes of hydrogen.  Oxygen isotopes are used in a similar way to augment the hydrogen isotopes.
  10. Petit, J. R., et al. (1999) Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core Antarctica: Nature, 399, 429-436
  11. Shakun, J. D., et al. (2012) Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last glaciation: Nature, 484, 49-54
  12. Nordhaus, W. D. (2015) A new solution: the climate club: New York Review of Books, June 4
  13. Wagner, G. and Weitzman, M. L. (2015) Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet: Princeton University Press