Seven Decades of Safety: Asbestos Becomes a Menace

Oct. 1, 2008
Dr. Irving J. Selikoff told more than 400 scientists at the Conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos in October 1964 that asbestos was killing workers

Dr. Irving J. Selikoff told more than 400 scientists at the Conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos in October 1964 that asbestos was killing workers.

“Dr. Selikoff's meeting in 1964 is the most important thing that has happened this century in occupational safety and health,” said Dr. William Rom, professor of medicine and environmental medicine at New York University Medical Center. “Nothing was the same after all the evidence he produced about asbestos and its links to cancer.”

Selikoff's findings were the first to definitively link asbestos not only with respiratory disease, but to cancer as well. Other researchers at the same conference presented evidence showing that the tiny asbestos fibers were turning up in the lungs of the wives and children of workers who handled asbestos. It also appeared to affect the health of citizens living near asbestos mines and landfills in South Africa, where much of the material originated.

The Burden of Proof

In the early '60s, said Rom, industry was aware of concerns about asbestos but, they “were skeptical until the burden of evidence became overwhelming, and this happened in 1964.”

By 1964, asbestos was used in everything from insulation in homes and schools to filters in cigarettes. It was also used in every ship that left our country's ports. It was considered a “miracle” material because it did not burn, was hard as rock and could be used virtually anywhere.

Paul Safchuck worked at the Sparrow Point Shipyard, outside Baltimore, Md., from 1935 to 1975. Operated by Bethlehem Steel, the shipyard built commercial and military vessels, including warships sent out to the seemingly endless Vietnam conflict.

“I worked there from 1935 until 1975, and I was never told about the dangers of asbestos,” he said. “They never told the average worker that what they were working with was dangerous. They were making too much money to worry about it.”

Safchuck, who has asbestosis, said the material was used on every ship built back then. Workers handled it with bare hands and never thought to wear respirators. Safchuck's son also worked at the site and was diagnosed with asbestosis.

“At lunch time we would sit down on the deck, which was covered with asbestos dust, lay our lunches down on it and eat right there,” he said. “It was especially bad in the engine rooms. It was so dusty down there it looked like it was snowing. You couldn't see from one end of the room to the other.”

From 1967 to 1986, Selikoff studied the mortality of 17,800 asbestos workers and found an alarming increase in the number of asbestos-related deaths because of cancer not only in the lungs and linings, but in other organs as well.

“It was a turbulent time,” said Rom. “But asbestos really didn't become regulated until the '70s and into the '80s. That's when standards were developed. That's when exposure was controlled.”

Decade of the 60's


1962: Cuban missile crisis

1962: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring published

1963: President John F. Kennedy assassinated

1964: Gulf of Tonkin resolution

1965: Watts riot leaves 34 dead

1968: Farmington, W.Va. coal mine explosion kills 78 miners

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