By Michael Bennett, Author of “The Asbestos Racket”
The Onetime “America’s Newspaper” Has Lost It’s Objectivity and Reports The News That Frightens.
The New York Times proved this fall that even the most respected paper in the country can become a sensational rag when it fails – or refuses – to check facts with competent authorities.
“Check it out” is the oldest cliche and most enduring truism in the news business, but the Times ignored it with the result that city officials last fall needlessly scared everyone in the city chasing a mass murderer who wasn’t there. In fact, he’d been arrested almost 20 years before at the Brooklyn Shipyard, found guilty of being an accomplice to aggravated assault rather than murder, forced to make restitution and, finally, after many of the charges against him had been dropped, released two years ago as no longer a threat to the community.
If “all politics is local,” as former Speaker Thomas P “Tip” O’Neill said, all reporting is police reporting, a fact the Times, its editors and reporters have forgotten. Anyone who’s ever watched a murder story on television should know no one’s been murdered until the medical examiner says so, and the key to any murder case is the method of killing. What the Times did in this “Case of the Missing Murderer – and Murder Victim” was print rumors of murder without either a corpus delicti or any evidence of a murder weapon being used. No corpus delicti, no murder; an undischarged weapon, no charge; no one hurt, no story. That’s the rule unless, as appears to have really happened here, the Times took sides in a bureaucratic dispute, mishandling of school maintenance, but not worth crisis treatment.
The alleged mass murderer in this case wasn’t a human being, but rather a mineral, asbestos. The process by which asbestos was first identified as a murderer, indicted, tried, convicted on sharply reduced charges bankrupted, and then had most of the counts thrown out on appeal should have been easy enough for any competent reporter to have dug out. Indeed, almost all the information was available in the Times’ own files and expert authorities were no more than a telephone call away.
Asbestos had been widely used in buildings for almost a century as a fire retarding and insulating material. The fibrous material was found in the late 60s and 70s, when inhaled in high quantities by workers to produce lung disease. However, its role was more of an accomplice than a murderer since cigarette smoking multiplied the risk 80 to 92 times over. Many subsequent tort claims for damages in the courts were won, and many lost because of the uncertainty the respective role of asbestos and tobacco but, nevertheless, most former asbestos producers went broke.
Meanwhile, computer extrapolations of 58,000 to 72,000 annually from asbestos led to the passage of Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) for schools in 1986. But extrapolations were found to be grossly exaggerated and even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admitted the total to be no more than 13-15 a year. Subsequent reports by the American Medical Association the Health Effects Institute of Cambridge headed by Archibald Cox of Watergate fame and reports in Science and The New England Journal of Medicine led the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991 to unanimously throw out EPA’s attempt to ban asbestos.
All of this could have been discovered long before one million children were kept out of school and the city committed to $1.2 billion to “clean up” a nonexistent threat. Even The New Yorker, which had hyped the dangers of asbestos for 20 years conceded in a Sept. 20 editorial, “a New York City schoolchild is considerably more likely to be killed right now by a stray bullet in the streets – or, for that matter, to be assaulted, or even murdered in school – than to die of asbestosis many year’s later.”
The Times could have quoted itself. A major series in the Times, March 21-14, announced that experts say that in the last 15 years environmental policy has too often evolved in response to popular panics not in response to sound scientific analyses.” The Federal asbestos-in-schools law was cited a “classic example” of legislation “written in reaction to popular concerns (but) based on little if any sound research abut the true nature of the threat.
Instead, the Times fed “popular panic” by not assigning reporters to the story long enough to become knowledgeable, never mind expert. When reporters are rotated on and off a story quickly they are only able to repeat the latest rumors and unable to follow up promising leads. Consequently, newspapers normally follow the rule that reporters who “breaks” stories stay on them, helped by reporters with specialized knowledge, in this case science reporters. Yet, only once did the Times, which prides itself on science news coverage, publish a story by a science reporter about the health effects of asbestos.
The key facts are unequivocal; William K. Stevens wrote in a brief article tucked away on page 24 on August 7, the day the story broke. Under the headline, “Assessing the Dangers of Asbestos Fibers,” Stevens wrote “asbestos is a threat only if its fibers escape into the air, where they can be inhaled.” He then pointed out that there are two types of asbestos fiber, chrysotile, and the amphibole variety. Experts agree the amphibole variety “is deadly because its smooth, needle like fibers are easily taken into the lungs.”
The other variety, chrysotile, “has curly fibers that are more easily rejected by the lungs and scientists disagree as to its impact on health,” Stevens wrote. That means determining the type of asbestos present is the first thing that has to be, yet, as Stevens wrote. “It is unclear which type is more prevalent in the New York City schools.” Was the asbestos in the New York schools chrysotile, which accounts for 95 percent of all asbestos in building nationally?
The answer never appeared in the Times and no one apparently asked the question. There is another central question. How many asbestos fibers are in the air? Only one of the dozens of New York Times stories dealt with that issue. The story, by Matthew L. Wald under the headline, “Experts Say Fear of Asbestos Exceeds the Risk in Schools,” pointed out a safe or threshold level of asbestos exposure has been established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of 0.01 fibers per cubic centimeter of air.
In fact, tests done even in buildings with exposed asbestos are almost always well below that level. “We’re not talking about a very large health risk because of a week or two, or even a couple of months in the school,” Wald quoted Dr. James Melius, director of the state Division of Occupational Health and Environmental Epidemiology, as saying. Then, Melius said something that Times editors should not be allowed to forget: “But talk of statistics and epidemiology are of little comfort to anxious parents who hear uncertainty and vagueness.”
That “uncertainty and vagueness” was fed by the Times when, for unexplained reasons, Wald, like Stevens before him, was taken off the story. The next story Wald probably would have written would have been about a law recently passed by the state of Michigan, which made the OSHA “safety” threshold the sole criteria for deciding whether asbestos needs to be removed. The bill, which was introduced by Sen. John W. Schwartz, a medical doctor who had trained at Harvard Medical School, passed the legislature 90-2 in the House and 30-6 in the Senate. Wald knew the bill is expected to save the state $1 billion – about as much New York’s “cleanup” – but he was off the story.
If that weren’t bad enough, the Times completely ignored a report directly addressing that point, issued by the American Health Foundation of New York. The federally funded and world-famed foundation is based in New York and headed by Dr. Ernest Wydner who along with Sir Richard Doll of Oxford proved cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, concluded its two-year study:
“The Council finds that even complete removal of asbestos from all these buildings will provide no measurable benefit to public health.”
“Based on the best available data, it is very unlikely that cancer will result from indoor air exposure, especially when asbestos-containing material is well maintained.”
The foundation’s report, scheduled for publication in the January issue of Preventive Medicine, went completely unreported in the Times. Such peer reviewed scientific journals are the virtually exclusive source of scientifically established fact, as a science reporter such as Stevens would know. The Times could also have found precisely the same points made in a three-year old EPA guidebook, “Managing Asbestos in Place.” The guidebook book first notes risk “depends on exposure to airborne asbestos fibers,” and then observes:
“Based upon available data, the average airborne asbestos levels in buildings seem to be very low. Accordingly, the health risk to most building occupants also appears to be very low.”
“Removal is often not (emphasis EPA’s) a building owner’s best course of action to reduce asbestos exposure. In fact, an improper removal can create a dangerous condition where none existed previously.”
What is completely inexplicable, by any accepted journalistic standard, is the Times’ refusal to print a Sept. 17 letter, signed by 17 world-renowned asbestos experts, pleading with the paper to “allay the public’s fears through education…. We are saddened that virtually all the relevant scientific data have been ignored,” wrote the signers from Oxford, Yale, the State University of New York, City University of New York, Johns Hopkins, the University of London, Boston University, Bryn Mawr and the University of Vermont, wrote. “Rational voices must be heard,” the letter, an implicit- and unprecedented – rebuke of the nation’s leading newspaper, said.
Not one asbestos researcher has been interviewed by the Times since the asbestos scare erupted, despite the fact the nation’s newspaper of record had published dozens of stories and quoted hundreds of uniformed public and school officials, parents and children – and financially interested asbestos abatement contractors. An op-ed piece by one medical doctor, Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York was published by the Times September 4, under the title, “Asbestos Anxiety.”
His advice to parents to “discuss the dangers of asbestos with their children,” however, compounded anxiety by stating no safe level of exposure has been established – the so-called “one fiber can kill theory.” Further, according to Landrigan, “two-thirds of the public and commercial buildings in New York City contain asbestos, much of it in deteriorating condition and thus likely to release microscopic fibers that can contaminate the air.”
As a matter of scientific fact, “there is virtually no risk to school children from asbestos in the city public schools – unless asbestos is removed improperly” the 17 asbestos experts declared. With a little checking, the Times could have quickly determined Landrigan isn’t an asbestos expert. He was trained as a pediatrician and is essentially an administrator, not a researcher. He was associated with the late Dr. Irving J. Selikoff of Mt. Sinai Hospital, a pioneer asbestos researcher, the author of the discredited extrapolations of 58,000 to 72,0000 deaths from asbestos.
Landrigan told a Congressional committee on April 20, 1990 that asbestos will cause 300,000 to 500,000 deaths by the year 2000 figures discredited now even by Marvin Schneiderman, a statistician who was EPA’s sole scientific expert during the ban proceedings. The Selikoff data was used “without questioning them,” Schneiderman told the April, 1992 Journal of the National Cancer Institute, “We made inappropriate estimates that short-term exposures were just as nasty, as carcinogenic and deadly as long term exposures. (But) you have to have fairly continuous exposure to cause the worst effects.”
The Times reliance on only one source of information about the health effects of asbestos and its failure or, to be more accurate, refusal to publish the overwhelming evidence on the other side is inexcusable by any standard of journalistic fairness. That refusal has to raise questions about the competence of the Times, not these authorities, including as they do, not only the 17 scientists, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the American Health Foundation, the AMA, the International Labor Organization and the Health Effects Institute.
EPA’s “strange silence” about the New York situation should also be explored, Dr. Brooks Mossman, a pathologist at the University of Vermont, should also be explored. She was the principal author of the articles in Science and The New England Journal of Medicine which the Times reported in 1989 and 1991 as downplaying the threat posed by asbestos. The silence may be due to EPA’s failure to consult its own Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) about asbestos’ health effects.
“The SAB is concerned that the scientific basis for EPA’s regulatory actions and guidance documents on asbestos have not (emphasis supplied) had the benefit of review from the SAB,” an April 21, 1992 letter to then EPA Administrator William R. Reilly said. Reilly replied perfunctorily and evasively on Sept. 21, 1992. The current EPA Administrator, Carol Browning, has not addressed the issue at all. The reason may be found in a 1992 EPA publication, Credible Science, Credible Decisions, which admits the agency’s legal demands for “no safe level of exposure” is “creating confusion and a lack of credibility for EPA decisions,” in the words of the report.
There’s another reason for EPA’s silence – unwillingness to get in the middle of New York politics – as a top EPA official acknowledged off the record. “This whole thing was triggered by testing done by the city’s School Construction Authority” he said, “but their testing rises methods called for under the Clean Air Act which, statistically speaking, will come up with higher risk estimates than those under the law governing the schools.
The authority wants to take over maintenance of the schools as well renovation and building. They have a good case. Maintenance is terrible, the asbestos testing was probably as bad as they say, and the custodian system is corrupt. But people who have kids in the schools would probably prefer to see principals retain control rather than give power to big bureaucrats.”
Another indication that the real issue is bureaucratic control – other than the fact that the Times has editorially supported the School Construction Authority – lies in the fact that EPA would probably have gone along with any reasonable abatement plan the city had come up with. “We wouldn’t have been happy,” the EPA official said, “but, yeah, as long as our requirements were met, which are really just inspection and filing plans, yeah, we would have gone along. Why not, no one was in any danger.”
The Washington Post got a Pulitzer Prize for exposing Watergate. Twenty years later, Richard Nixon’s enduring but essentially fraudulent legacy is his scientifically discredited “War on Cancer,” which the Times had begun to expose in the March series by Keith Schneider. Curiously, however, since then Schneider has become the subject of “malignant criticism,” as he wrote in the fall issue of the SEJ Journal published by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Yet the scientific facts stated by Congressional Office of Technology Assessment study, as the Times series reported in March, remain. The Office has estimated no more than 6,600 people would be spared from death by cancer if all the environmental laws on the books were flawlessly administered, a practical impossibility. The more plausible figure is less than 1,200. Five hundred thousand people die annually from cancer. Only if people stopped smoking would the death rate be cut to any substantial extent, perhaps 150,000.
Richard Nixon’s “War on Cancer” is a failure, but, with help from the Times, continues as a corrupt crusade. The biggest scientific and domestic news story of the present time is the death of the environmental theory of cancer, scientifically, but it survival – and prosperity – as a new government sponsored racket. No one is looking for Communists under beds anymore; but The New York Times is still searching frantically for cancer in every schoolroom and finding only its own professional incompetence, if not intellectual corruption.
The Times proud claim of publishing all the “news that’s fit to print” is being replaced, by the old tabloid maxim, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” §
For Speak Up America by Michael J. Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize nominee of The Detroit News and author of The Asbestos Racket. An Environmental Parable is affiliated with the Science and Environmental Policy Project of Washington D. C.
Copyright © 1995 SUANews
All Rights Reserved