The link between asbestos and diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer is well understood today, but that wasn’t always the case.
More than anyone else, Dr. Irving Selikoff is responsible for bringing the irrefutable dangers of asbestos to national attention and changing the world’s perception of the so-called “miracle mineral.” Selikoff, who died of cancer in 1992, would have been 105 today.
In the asbestos prevention community, Selikoff is regarded as a hero, but during his life, the doctor was vilified by industry insiders in medicine, academia, and the press. His research on the health risks of asbestos exposed a dangerous truth that companies wanted to be covered up.
Because of his quest to promote safety for workers, Selikoff found himself in a head-to-head battle with a deep-pocketed asbestos industry that would stop at nothing to keep its products on the market.
Stubborn, media-savvy, and whip-smart, Selikoff refused to back down. He kept fighting for asbestos regulation and succeeded in igniting a revolution in occupational safety.
Selikoff Overcame Prejudice to Become Doctor
Selikoff was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1915. At 21, he completed his undergraduate education at Columbia University but was forced to study medicine abroad because of quotas placed on Jewish students. He studied in Scotland and Australia, completing his degree during the war and returning to the United States shortly thereafter.
In an interview towards the end of his life, Selikoff was grateful for his journey, regardless of the anti-Semitism he faced early on:
“The luckiest thing I ever did was to select medicine. It has led to an extremely happy, productive, enjoyable life and whatever difficulties, roadblocks, etc., there may have been in the beginning, these were either circumvented or overcome, but this is not infrequent in many lives. So, it’s been a very, very good life.”
Selikoff’s non-traditional path to becoming a doctor was a constant target of his critics, who spread rumors that he had faked his medical degree. These attacks persisted long after he had proven himself as one of the greatest occupational physicians of his generation.
Selikoff Starts to Realize the Asbestos-Cancer Connection
In 1952, Selikoff and Dr. Edward H. Robitzek successfully used isoniazid to treat tuberculosis. For this new and effective means of controlling the disease, they were awarded the Lasker Award in 1955. The use of isoniazid in treating the disease is still widely used.
As impressive as the discovery of this novel drug treatment was, it was his subsequent work with asbestos that would earn Selikoff national and then worldwide acclaim.
The story begins in the clinic Selikoff opened in Paterson, New Jersey. As he began to treat workers from an asbestos plant, he noticed that a relatively large number of them had supposedly rare illnesses.
He monitored these workers and tried to treat them, but “it became clear as we were following these people that they were dying of cancer," Selikoff said. Of the 17 workers he had identified, 15 were dead within a few years from mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer.
Selikoff began studying the impact of asbestos on lung health and mortality. He orchestrated larger and larger studies, including a groundbreaking survey of 17,800 asbestos insulation workers, which confirmed the deadly connection between asbestos and deadly lung disease.
A Good Doctor Faces Off Against a Bad Industry
Even before Selikoff started calling for the regulation of asbestos, the companies that sold asbestos knew about the associated respiratory risks. As early as the 1930s, executives at major asbestos corporations had clear medical evidence that their workers were getting sick.
Instead of informing them or instituting safety measures, they chose to watch them die.
The United States used to be the world’s largest consumer of asbestos — the industry was incredibly lucrative and had a powerful voice in Washington. At its peak, more than 200,000 American workers were involved with making asbestos products, with millions more directly exposed as insulators, mechanics, electricians, and in other high-risk occupations.
In 1964, Selikoff organized an international conference on asbestos in New York City. He gathered the foremost researchers on the subject, and while there was little new scientific evidence presented, the conference raised widespread public awareness about the dangers of asbestos and mesothelioma.
From that point on, Selikoff faced relentless attacks from the asbestos industry, which sought to undercut his research and conclusions. They maligned his character, his medical school pedigree, and his motives, claiming that he took money from unions and was really out to enrich himself.
At the same time that industry titans were making such baseless claims, they continued to monitor everything Selikoff said and paid for favorable research to counter his arguments. It was a losing battle. In retrospect, the 1964 asbestos conference was a tipping point and the beginning of the end for Big Asbestos.
The Fight Against Asbestos Continues
Selikoff’s work is still standing — the same cannot be said for the asbestos industry that sought to discredit him. Many of those companies are now bankrupt, and their assets reorganized as asbestos trusts that are set up to compensate mesothelioma victims, survivors, and their families.
In 1966, he founded the Environmental and Occupational Health Division at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he worked for 51 years. Today, the hospital’s Selikoff Center(s) for Occupational Health is one of the world leaders in the prevention and treatment of workplace illness and injury.
By the time of his death, Selikoff’s pathbreaking research and staunch advocacy had literally reshaped the way America thought about asbestos and workplace safety.
But the fight is not over.
In 2020, asbestos is still legal in the United States. Workers around the world are still being exposed, and more than 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed every year in the United States alone.
As those with an interest in protecting the public health, it’s important to remember Dr. Irving Selikoff.
Whether it is asbestos, vaping health risks, or the addictive potential of opioids, greedy corporations will happily spew public health misinformation in order to hold on to profits.
Remember Selikoff, and never back down to industry pressure.