British pathologist J.C. Wagner in 1960 published the first scientific findings that linked asbestos exposure to mesothelioma.
His groundbreaking report on mesothelioma led to significant upgrades in safety standards in the U.K., the decline of the asbestos industry in North America — as well as threats to his life.
But 30 years after Wagner published his initial findings, he reversed his position, testifying in court that mesothelioma is dose-related and not caused by exposure to the deadly mineral.
Court records later revealed the man whose scientific research had rattled the asbestos industry was on the payroll of several asbestos manufacturers and other companies that used the deadly mineral to produce their products.
Owens-Illinois, which used asbestos in manufacturing glass, had paid Wagner more than $300,000 over a 15-year period.
Wagner’s departure from his own research helped the asbestos industry flourish in the U.S. and developing countries. During that period of Wagner’s denial, the asbestos industry also began a massive campaign to counter mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of asbestos.
In 1954, the South African government appointed Wagner to the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit in Johannesburg to explore the problem of occupational disease among asbestos mine workers.
His investigation initially focused on asbestosis, but later shifted to the unusual tumors appearing in people living in the Northern Cape.
Wagner based his landmark 1960 report on an analysis of 33 cases of pleural mesothelioma. Only eight of the 33 people diagnosed with the rare cancer had been occupationally exposed to asbestos, but 20 of the remaining 25 lived near the mines as infants.
Wagner’s findings had monumental implications for the asbestos industry that went far beyond the dangers of workers handling the fibers directly. He found that the risk for cancer extended to anyone who came in contact with asbestos products before, during or after manufacture.
“The movement of fiber through the cycles of mining, milling, and transport and the global movement of asbestos as an international commodity made the discovery even more significant,” wrote Jock McCulloch, a historian who authored “Saving the Asbestos Industry, 1960 to 2006.”
As Wagner’s research uncovered increasing evidence of the link between asbestos and mesothelioma, the asbestos industry in South Africa invested in new mines and mills to meet the growing global demand.Find out who concealed asbestos risks from their employees
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His article caused a storm in Johannesburg and it was rumored that the asbestos industry threatened to have Wagner shot.”
– Jock McCullough, Historian
After publishing his findings, Wagner didn’t last too long in South Africa.
Severe pressure from the industry to cease asbestos-related disease research drove him to return to the U.K., where he accepted a position at a Pneumoconiosis Unit at Llandough Hospital.
He went on to pursue a successful career in scientific research. After his death in 2000, the British Press touted Wagner as an outstanding international authority on asbestos-related cancer.
Despite these praises, there is evidence that he may have been living a double life.
To oppose Wagner’s claims and allay public concern, the asbestos industry quickly concocted a strategy to raise doubts about the toxic nature of its profitable mineral.
The three commercial varieties of asbestos are chrysotile (white), amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue). Throughout the 19th century, 90 percent of all asbestos used was the white chrysotile.
Canadian chrysotile producers purported that mesothelioma only arose from exposure to blue asbestos, which constituted 10 percent of the market and was mined at only two locations in the world.
The industry sparked a debate that raged for years, leaving the public guessing which form of asbestos, if not all of them, was deadly.
Wagner’s article reported that all varieties of asbestos caused mesothelioma, a finding he confirmed with animal studies. From that point, additional research by other scientists began to mount supporting that chrysotile was in fact linked to mesothelioma.
All the evidence suggested there was no safe way to mine or transport asbestos, and no safe way to manufacture or use asbestos products. Yet 30 years after his article was published, Wagner seemed to have changed his mind.
In 1990, Wagner testified contrary to his original findings in a court case involving the U.S. conglomerate Raymark, formerly Raybestos-Manhattan.
Under oath he endorsed the industry position that even heavy exposure to chrysotile does not cause mesothelioma. He also testified 20 percent of mesotheliomas are not caused by asbestos and the cancer is always dose related.
During cross-examination, Wagner admitted that he was being paid by asbestos attorney R. Bruce Shaw to provide reviews of current literature on the topic to the industry.
The following year, while serving on the Health Effects Institute-Asbestos Research Literature Review Panel with 17 other leading figures in the field, Wagner was the only dissenting voice in the panel’s findings that all types of asbestos — including chrysotile — caused mesothelioma.
He even appended the final report, arguing there was a background rate of mesotheliomas unrelated to asbestos exposure. He emphasized instead the role passive smoking and radon played in triggering the cancer.
Wagner’s name came up again in 2000 in another case involving Owens-Illinois, a glass and packaging company that used large quantities of amosite and chrysotile in its manufacturing, and Turner & Newall, another former asbestos giant based in the U.K.
Documents came forth revealing that Owens-Illinois made recurring payments to Wagner for the past 15 years. His total estimated earnings exceeded $300,000.
Wagner and Owens-Illinois denied an association, and Wagner even denied the claim while under oath.
His opposing voice on such a respected panel provided continued fuel to the public debate over whether chrysotile was deadly or not.
What’s more, Wagner’s change in position came when evidence was mounting on all fronts that all forms of asbestos were related to mesothelioma.
So long as there was a counter-discourse about the toxicity of chrysotile, the industry could argue that the banning of asbestos was not justified.”
– Jock McCullough, Historian
With his notoriety and expertise, Wagner sat in a key position to dictate said “truths” about asbestos and impact public opinion.
As a result, the asbestos industry gained numerous years of additional production in the industrial world and caused an untold number of human exposures to the deadly fiber.
McCullough reported the irony he encountered when he met with Wagner for an interview. Wagner complained that beginning in the mid-1950s, the industry set out to frustrate scientific discovery and gave only minimal cooperation to researchers like himself.
He said that sometime in the 1970s, the whole scientific endeavor was “hijacked” by lawyers and the press and he regrets that he ever worked on asbestos disease.
Beth Swantek has been writing professionally for 30 years. She is a former news reporter and anchor for a CBS affiliate in Michigan and often reported breaking medical and political news. Currently, she teaches media writing and video production at Lawrence Technological University in the Detroit area, as well as working as a freelance writer and producer.
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