Asbestos: The Missing Link Between Deflategate, Junk Science, & Corporate Greed

by Sokolove Law

Tom Brady celebrated his fourth Super Bowl championship by hoisting the silver, Vince Lombardi trophy over his head in front of over 70,000 football fans. The 38 year-old is considered by many fans, analysts, and players to be one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game, so it’s all the more disappointing to think that Brady may spend the beginning of the 2015-2016 season in a federal courtroom rather than out on the field. But if the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision is upheld by Judge Berman, that’s exactly what will happen.

So-called “Deflategate” has dominated headlines for over 8 months now. The scandal began during the January AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. After Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted an aberrant Brady pass, The Colts noted on their sideline that the Patriots’ ball felt “deflated.” Since then, there has been a – what’s been billed as – back-and-forth battle between NFL League Commissioner Roger Goodell and Quarterback Tom Brady. Subsequently, Goodell hired investigators to gather evidence to determine whether or not Brady deliberately ordered the deflation of his footballs below the minimum standards, so as to gain a gripping and throwing advantage in cold and rainy weather.

One of the results of this legal and media battle between the NFL commissioner and the league’s star player is a 243-page report compiled by lawyer, Ted Wells. The “Wells Report” contains over 100 pages of scientific data taken from various experiments conducted on the nature of air-pressure in footballs. What the public didn’t learn until later was that all of the scientific data in the Wells Report came from a private research firm that specializes in what’s called “exposure reconstruction in product-liability lawsuits.” While this may sound dense, what this research group really does is provide convenient “facts” to protect companies with lethal products, whether these products contain tobacco, asbestos, or any other harmful carcinogen.

The scientific studies in the Wells Report are the work of the self-defined research consulting group, Exponent. This group has a reputation of presenting “junk science” as real, irrefutable research and uses it to defend the harmful products of massive industrial corporations. Exponent’s record includes the defense of big tobacco and of other, giant corporations that manufacture asbestos-filled products. In a notable case, the group famously denied that secondhand smoke causes cancer.

Exponent also worked defensively on a famous case in which autoworkers, who had developed mesothelioma while fixing brakes, were attempting to pursue justice and hold big corporations accountable for their actions. Mesothelioma, as the public has come to know, is a rare form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. In this case, Exponent produced evidence that denied these victims their compensation. Their argument was, quite plainly, that asbestos exposure from brake-work does not cause mesothelioma.

However, according to The National Cancer Institute’s website, it states, in reference to automobile workers specifically, that “there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.” Additionally, NCI states “investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures.” What this means is that Exponent, at worst, out-and-out lied in its report defending large corporations who were known to manufacture products that contained asbestos, and at best knowingly sugarcoated its research to downplay the suffering of those automotive workers.

In a 2006 case, Exponent worked with a fellow contracted scientist, David Bernstein, to defend a joint compound manufacturer. Joint compound is a material used in construction and homebuilding. Throughout the 1970’s, several prominent studies found that stray particles from the dried compound could cause mesothelioma. After being paid 3.3 million dollars by the compound manufacturer, Exponent and Bernstein drafted their own report suggesting that only certain asbestos fibers, known as amphiboles, caused Mesothelioma while the fibers in the joint compound, called Chrysotiles, were harmless if used in a controlled setting.

This turned out to be untrue and David Bernstein knew it. During the 1980s and 90s Bernstein himself conducted animal experiments with Chrysotile fibers and found them to be lethal to rats. The Chrysotile was so dangerous that lab workers wore special suits to seal themselves away from any asbestos fibers.

Exponent’s attempt to portray asbestos as harmless is scientifically inaccurate. By manipulating scientific facts in order to protect big business, Exponent has made it more difficult for the mesothelioma victims who are seeking justice to receive it. When scientists generate biased and dishonest data to defend billion-dollar corporations with toxic products, they are stating, very clearly, that they value money over the lives of their fellow human beings. This is an example of every-day corporate greed that physically, emotionally, and financially destroys honest citizens.

After years of playing cover up for both big tobacco and asbestos-manufacturing companies, Exponent was hired by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to do a similar kind of work, only with footballs instead of poisonous fibers. The research firm’s findings are heavily cited in the Wells Report and assert that changes in temperature “cannot account entirely for the pressure drops observed in the Patriots halftime measurements.” This conclusion is important because it provides seemingly damning evidence that certain members of the Patriots staff had cheated and knowingly deflated footballs before the game. Exponent’s findings are a crucial component of not just the Wells Report, but also the general conversation surrounding Deflategate. The issue has become so intense that former quarterback and current ESPN analyst, Mark Brunnell was actually brought to tears when discussing the scandal. When later asked why he cried, Brunnel, assuming that the report’s scientific findings were correct, stated that “…the balls were deflated…” and that, in his experience, no equipment manager would do such a thing without first talking to the quarterback. He ultimately expressed severe disappointment with Tom Brady.

Take the report and Exponent’s findings at face value, and there’s really no question of what to believe. Science is science and there’s no arguing with it, right? If the studies found that the outside temperature couldn’t significantly affect the pressure of footballs, then that’s that – case closed. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As can be seen by Exponent’s history of defending the safety of secondhand smoke and carcinogens like asbestos, “science” is only as true and honest as the people conducting the experiments.

Just as there were conflicting reports involved in Exponent’s asbestos cases, in Deflategate, too, there’s a second side to the story. Another independent research firm, American Enterprise Institute, issued its own formal analysis that stated the Wells report is not entirely accurate and that Exponent’s methods of conducting experiments were flawed. AEI wrote:

the Wells report’s results can [only] be replicated when we use a different, flawed modeling approach that fundamentally differs from the approach described in the report… when correct tests are performed, the evidence points to a conclusion that is inconsistent with the Wells findings…The Wells report conclusions are likely incorrect, and a simple misunderstanding appears to have led the NFL to these incorrect conclusions.

This is a pretty clear and direct statement about the importance of scientific rigor from a seasoned research group that has experience working with the NFL.

Part of the “simple misunderstanding” AEI refers to involves a concept known as the Ideal Gas Law. As it turns out, the conclusions reached by the Wells Report are based on simple miscalculations that do not take into account the pressure in the atmosphere that pushes against the outside of the football. The New York Times, weighing in on the issue, explains that, “when a gauge indicates that the ball contains 12.5 p.s.i. — the minimum allowed by the N.F.L. — the actual pressure is more than twice that amount. This roughly doubles how much a dip in temperature can lower the pressure.” To be fair, the scientists at Exponent weren’t the only ones to make this mistake, as it appears highly-popular TV personalities and scientists, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy, were also tripped up by the Ideal Gas Law.

More recently, Thomas Healy, in his own experiments at Carnegie Mellon, set the record straight by correcting this error and pointing out that the amount of deflation caused in a football by outside pressure is nearly double what Exponent and the Wells Report had claimed was possible.

Research consultants, such as Exponent, build their reputations and make their money by lending “convenient” legitimacy to massive corporations who put profits before people, all while cutting corners. This is not just a matter of doing the right thing or preserving the scientific method – it’s also about not overlooking the very real suffering of those whom have died from secondhand smoke, and the over 3,000 Americans who are diagnosed with and die from Mesothelioma each year. When consultants cook up and convince the public of bogus “scientific” data, they take legitimacy away from the claims of Mesothelioma victims, making it even harder for them to get compensation and, in some cases, even treatment.

It’s easy to focus on the immediate, daily drama of the Deflategate controversy. It involves an NFL golden boy who many hail as a living football legend, as well as unprecedented allegations of cheating, conspiracy and deception with one of the nation’s most-storied franchises. The hints of corruption and the attempts to persecute both a championship team and a future hall-of-fame quarterback are all exciting and provocative. But it’s also important to realize that the sort of behavior that has made the Wells Report and Deflategate possible is the same kind of behavior that has lead scientists to deny the lethal effects of both secondhand smoke and asbestos exposure.

Science is an invaluable tool capable of affecting massive change. For science to be beneficial, it must be conducted with rigor and honesty rather than manipulated to appeal to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the honest scientists from the profiteers, the AEIs from the Exponents. A question bigger than deflated footballs and team legacies is who will the real victims of Exponent’s other “junk science” turn to for advice and assistance? How do regular people—mesothelioma survivors and their struggling families—get help when the information about their disease can be bought and skewed?

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