By Michael J. Bennett, Author of “The Asbestos Racket”
The great modern plague killing 50,000 to 60,000 people a year – many of them school children – has been revealed in The Washington Post, appropriately enough on Halloween, as being a great modern superstition.
“When some degree of uncertainty exists, superstition can lead people to harbor fears out of balance with the magnitude of the risk,” John Schwartz wrote in an article, ”Technology’s Magic Can’t Make Pseudo Science Disappear” on Oct. 31, “and disproportionate fears can be expensive. For instance, cities have spent millions to rip asbestos insulation out of schools, even though experts now say the asbestos used as insulation poses little risk as long as it is left alone.”
The observation is wrong on two points. First, the amount spent on schools has been at least $30 billion, and probably another one billion will have been spent by the end of this year. Second, experts have been saying asbestos in good condition should be left alone at least since 1985 when the articles on which my book, The Asbestos Racket: An Environmental Parable, first appeared in The Detroit News. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the rest of the media is finally catching up with the news, even if it is nine years old.
Time, for example, in an article entitled, “Keeping Cool on Risk,” reported on Sept. 19: “Even some environmentalists concede that decisions to rip asbestos out of schools were probably ill-advised.” An enormous amount of damage has been done, however, because the media, unfortunately, is very slow to learn. The New York Times, for example, ran a major series of articles in March of 1983 in which asbestos-in-schools was cited as a major example of how the nation’s “environmental program has gone seriously awry.”
Nevertheless, last fall, the newspaper precipitated panic in the city by disclosing the public schools hadn’t been properly inspected for the presence of asbestos. It neglected, however, to point out that, in itself, was no reason for concern. The paper ultimately conceded in an article published on Nov. 14, 1993 that “an overzealous desire to comply with deadlines for Federal paperwork, not bribery or profiteering led to falsification of inspection reports…. The falsifications, discovered last summer, forced a convulsive emergency reinspection that ultimately cost $83 million and delayed the opening of school by nearly two weeks.”
The Times’ “convulsive” reporting led it to refuse to print or even acknowledge a letter from the world’s leading scientists on asbestos-related disease begging it to “call off the panic.” Nor did the newspaper report that Michigan had recently enacted a law, sponsored by a state senator who is also a medical doctor, which prohibits asbestos removal unless the fiber levels in the air are higher than the “threshold” level adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Had air monitoring been used in New York, it is unlikely one school would have been closed for one day.
Since then, several scientists who signed the earlier letter to The Times have produced a scholarly article expected to be cited in a major report to Congress in the next session assessing all the risks children are exposed to in schools. The major recommendation of the article is: “The NYC asbestos in schools crisis will hopefully present the need to avoid unnecessary panic and the necessity of conveying good information to a concerned public.”
Members of the media are beginning, however belatedly, to take that responsibility seriously – and criticize their peers who do not. A voluminous series in The Los Angeles Times on Sept. 11-13 by David Shaw which asked, “Why Does the Media Make Life Seem So Risky?,” has forced many reporters to acknowledge their work has, all too often, been too sensational and not sufficiently skeptical.
John Stossel of ABC-TV, for example, who has produced two hour-long shows within the past year taking a closer look at the claims of “noble environmental groups,” admits to his earlier gullibility. “I’m embarrassed to say that it took me years to realize their data were often soft, if not absurd, and they had their own venal motives, to get on television, to get famous, to get more money,” Stossel told Shaw.
Jon Franklin, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun who is now a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon – after winning two Pulitzer Prizes – has no need to apologize for his work. Back in 1982, Franklin, a veteran who had demonstrated as a student against the Dow Chemical Company, went after the Agent Orange story with, as he said, “the righteous fervor that is the armor of the crusading reporter.”
He found, however, the claims that the herbicide caused everything from cancer to birth defects “a myth,” but one that most reporters liked better than the facts. “They refused to look into it further,” he said, “It sickened me.” Today, Franklin says, “What we are seeing, in the press and our society, is nothing less than the deconstruction of the Enlightenment and its principal institution, science.”
One writer, Gary Taubes, has gone on the attack in an article, “The Power Line – Cancer Myth” in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly in which he takes on Paul Brodeur of The New Yorker, the journalist primarily responsible for generating fear about electromagnetic fields (EMF) created by power lines. “To those scientists and biologists who understand the science,” Taubes wrote, “EMF cancer seems almost as implausible as, for instance, ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception) induced cancer.” Please copy, Washington Post superstition editor.
Brodeur, whose earlier work was responsible for generating asbestos hysteria, is urging property owners to sue electrical companies, not because they have been harmed but out of fear. To win such cases, John Ward, a Baltimore lawyer who appears with Brodeur says, “Requires only fear of public fear of EMF from power lines and proof that such fear diminishes the market value of property. The reasonableness of the public’s fear is deemed either established or irrelevant.”
A similar doctrine has clogged the courts with 10,000 asbestos claims a year although no more than 600 people have ever died annually from asbestos. No proof of injury is needed to file, only fear caused by possible exposure. With so many cases pending, jury trials are impossible and companies have agreed to several billion dollars in claims settlements, to be paid out of increased insurance rates from the entire public. “The lawyers make the laws, and the first law the lawyers make is the lawyers shall be paid,” Federal Judge Jack Weinstein in forcing a settlement of Agent Orange claims before going on to manage asbestos cases. §
Michael J. Bennett is the author of The Asbestos Racket: An Environmental Parable, based on articles for The Detroit News nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
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