How asbestos made me a better journalist

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was a 21-year-old journalism student spending a couple of weeks as an intern at Science Dimension, a government-funded magazine (there weren’t any private science magazines in the country). I was assigned two short features while there: one on canola bioengineering and another on Canada’s asbestos industry. Both amounted to free publicity for industries heavily supported by the Canadian taxpayer, but I think the canola story withstood professional scrutiny. The asbestos piece? Not so much.

That story continues to haunt me. The only good thing I can say about it is I learned a hard lesson about the need for skepticism, especially when tasked with interviewing scientists whose livelihoods depend on something other than following the facts wherever they might lead. I bring it up thanks to Jon Stewart’s Daily show team, who recently discovered that Quebec and Canada continue to dump the province’s asbestos onto developing nations despite the overwhelming consensus of the medical and scientific communities that it’s a powerful carcinogen.

Back then I really had no idea that government-supported scientists, such as the people working at what was then known as the Asbestos Institute, would feed me a pack of lies. I knew they worked for asbestos miners, but I figured that surely the Canadian government wouldn’t support something that killed people. So when I was told that Quebec asbestos, known as chrysotile, was actually safe, unlike the cancer-causing amphibole variety that everyone else produces, it didn’t occur to me to challenge my sources.

Fortunately, that story never saw the light of day. My editors weren’t quite as gullible as me. Given that the story was their idea, I suppose they might have been testing me. If so, they never gave me any constructive feedback, though — something that annoyed me for ages. I even remember doing another story a few months later on asbestos for the university newspaper, and I still hadn’t figured out that the gang at the Asbestos Institute (now renamed the less-ominous Chrysotile Insitute) were lying.

Only much later, when I had learned to check the scientific literature itself, instead of trusting someone else to explain it to me, did I learn the facts about asbestos. The short story is this: No one doubts that amphibole asbestos is dangerous. Chrysotile is similar in structure; different enough to pose questions but not so different that it makes sense to assume it doesn’t post comparable risks. What evidence exists does not warrant concluding it is safe. And most chrysotile products are contaminated to some degree by amphibole fibers. Logically, then, to tell a 21-year-old journalism student — or anyone else — that your product is perfectly safe is tantamount to lying. Here’s an excerpt from a Canadian Medical Association Journal review of the subject:

The fact that chrysotile can be contaminated with amphibole is an inconvenient truth that is often overlooked in industry-funded studies (see related News article, page 886). It is only by discounting the industry-funded publications that a clearer picture emerges. In studies of exposure to putatively pure chrysotile, there is a lesser, but still significant, rise in lung cancer and mesothelioma. In the latest meta-analysis, some chrysotile sources appear equally potent as amphibole in causing lung cancer. It is no wonder that WHO recommends that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.”

That was written in 2008, but the facts weren’t any more in industry’s favor back in the 1980s. See, for example, the 1986 Asbestos Convention and the U.S. Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986. There remains plenty of work for researchers interested in nailing down just what chrysotile exposure can do to us, but no one can sincerely argue that it is “relatively safe.” It is a classic application of the precautionary principle. We don’t have all the facts (because we never do) but what facts we have warrants avoiding the stuff.

Kind of reminds me of global warming. Do we have all the facts about the consequences of fossil-fuel combustion? No (see the preceding paragraph). But there is a widespread consensus about what we do know. And what do we do know warrants taking steps to stop burning oil, coal, and gas as soon as we can.

The asbestos analogy may not resonate with everyone. But for me, it was particularly instructive. I am now skeptical by nature, thanks in no small part to my experience with the asbestos propagandists. When anyone, particularly those who owe some or all of their livelihood to corporate interests, argues that everyone else is wrong and they are right, I tend to doubt that they are telling the whole truth, or even a part of it. Most such claims are best ignored. Until some other more-gullible reporter gives it unwarranted attention in a high-profile outlet and someone has to set the record straight, of course.

Second, I learned that science journalists need to be able to read the primary literature and not rely on others’ interpretation. In my own case, that meant I needed to return to school and get another degree, one in a hard science. I am not suggesting that every science journalist needs to have a science degree. There are plenty of excellent examples out there to prove the contrary. But for me, it made a crucial difference. And given the incredible amount of disinformation about climatology that finds its way into the so-called respectable news outlets these days, it only seems reasonable that the onus should be on a journalist to demonstrate at least some understanding of a beat before he or she is granted the privilege of being paid to cover it.

For those who haven’t already seen it, here is the Daily Show segment:

7 Replies to “How asbestos made me a better journalist”

  1. I am not a scientist nor am I any kind of journalist. And I am especially not any kind of Asbestos expert. But I do remember a period when Asbestos safety was a hot topic. And this is my take away from what I read back then. Asbestos is a large family of needle-like minerals. There are lots of names for these needle-like minerals. And “experts”, in this case various shills, claimed each mineral with a different name was completely different. But this is baloney from a safety point of view. There is only one thing you need to pay attention to and that is the size of the particle. If it’s too big it can’t fit into lung cells. If it’s too small then it can fit but it can’t do much damage. But if its the right size it can fit into the lung cells and it can puncture holes in the cell wall, which is very bad. From a safety point of view, the amount of bad size particles that can get into the lung is the only thing that really matters. The rest is baloney. That’s what I remember. Do I have it about right?

  2. Eğer duyu organları dış aleme kapalı , gönül aynası her türlü kötülüklerden temizlenmiş , cilalı ise Levh-i mahfuzdaki manevi suretler ve bilinmeyen emirler gönül aynasına akseder ve görülür. Eğer duyu organları dış alemle meşgul, gönül aynası paslı ise , ruh, bu alemi seyredemez.
    Ruh rüyada , duyuların hafızada bıraktığı hayallerle uğraşır

  3. @#1: I believe I learned something similar in my enviro management classes. Asbestos can be deadly, but not in all circumstances.

    Nevertheless, it doesn’t make sense for Quebec to be promoting the asbestos industry. Too much liability.

  4. Kudos to you for making an error, admitting it, and learning to be better because of it. If more people were willing to admit they were fallible, the world would be a much better place.

    I’m not sure if you’re aware, but you can watch hi-res clips of the daily show online (if you’re willing to sit through a 15 sec commercial). The asbestos one is here.

  5. At the risk of sounding condescending- I think you may have some additional learning opportunities here. Cancer, risk assessment, and economics all have a very complex interaction, and it’s very tempting to try and simplify things so that the complexities are minimized. Unfortunately, I think you may have drawn some erroneous conclusions.

    A bit of history about me: Back in the 80s, I was working in a research group studying the mechanisms of how chromium(VI) causes cancer. Yes, the really bad actor in the movie Erin Brockovich. One of the lectures I went to discussed asbestos and how this mineral caused cancer. we learned that there were two forms of asbestos, but only one of the forms (not chrysotile) caused cancer. Both forms injured lung tissue when inhaled, but so did quartz fibers which had a very different chemistry. What I recall from the lecture was the conclusion that in order to cause cancer, you had to have a fiber with both a specific chemistry and morphology. Chrysotile had similar chemistry to the asbestos fiber that caused cancer- but a different morphology. And the quartz fibers didn’t cause cancer although they had a very similar morphology to the asbestos fiber that did. The take home message- both chemistry and morphology were critical to the development of cancer. The other lung tissue damage healed over time.

    You made the comment that asbestos is a “powerful” carcinogen. Well, I don’t think it is- no more so than chromium(VI) for example. To me a potent carcinogen is a compound where you administer it to 10 rats, and in a month you have 8-10 cases of cancer. There are a number of proven human carcinogens which aren’t exactly potent carcinogens. Cigarette smoke for example, proved to be quite challenging to induce cancer in animal studies, but a compound like NDMA worked pretty well IIRC. . Chromium(VI) was also pretty challenging to induce cancer in rats since high enough levels were simply toxic rather than carcinogenic. From the talk I went to- I don’t recall asbestos as being a particularly potent carcinogen.

    It’s not only Canada that mines asbestos- the US used to mine asbestos in the 90s and for all I know, still does. Nor did auto mfgs remove asbestos from brake pads completely. Again, in the late 90- early 2000s, OEMs were still using asbestos in the drum brakes found on a number of different models. They were being very careful with the stuff- workers had good protective gear and weren’t being exposed to asbestos, but there could certainly be some question about the car mechanic who serviced the brakes even with the warnings about how to remove brake pads into sealed bags. Even today, a small percentage of cars on the road have asbestos brake pads.

    Were the scientists in the asbestos institute lying to you? Or did they have a different viewpoint? Often the idea that a compound that’s widely used in commerce can be banned does not take into account how widely distributed the chain is- and how hard it can be to find replacements, especially for smaller corporations with limited resources. The brake pads often used to replace asbestos are semi-metallics, and they’ve certainly increased the amount of metals found in run off water. It’s quite possible that the increased concentration of metals such as chromium, nickel, and vanadium poses more of a threat than asbestos dust.

    The legal industry has had an incredible windfall on asbestos litigation which is still ongoing today, even though the original producers have long exited the business (often in bankruptcy.) When combined with the news industry and Hollywood which make money from scary stories, it can be very difficult for the average person to separate truth from fiction- or even scientists.


    Samuel Brauer, Ph.D.

  6. Anyone read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”?

    Just designate parts of the US-Canadian border area as a vast hazardous waste dump, put up huge walls of Lucite around it and launch all your trash there using giant trebuchets.
    Then just sign over the whole area to Canada so it becomes their problem.

  7. “Canada’s shameful asbestos …
    This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Viacom International Inc.
    Sorry about that.”

    Heh. How about that.

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