In 1973, Ford began telling its own employees to use “an industrial type vacuum cleaner” to remove dust from brake drums. “Under no circumstances shall compressed air blowoff be used to clean brakes and brake drums,” the company said. It first told its dealers about what it called “a potential health hazard” in 1975.
In a court filing, Ford said it began putting “caution” labels on packages of asbestos-containing brakes and clutches in 1980; many mesothelioma victims who have sued the company say they never saw such labels. In the same document Ford said it began a “complete phase-out of asbestos-containing brake products” in the 1983 model year, starting with its Ranger pickup truck. A decade later, only Ford Mustangs and certain limousines were equipped with asbestos brakes; some asbestos-containing parts for older model-year vehicles were available until 2001through dealerships and authorized distributors.
That was the year lawyer Grams reached out to toxicologist Paustenbach to gauge his interest in studying mesothelioma in ex-mechanics. “I contacted Dr. Paustenbach because he is one of the leading professional experts in the world,” Grams, who no longer represents Ford, said in a brief phone interview. Grams said he had read none of the recent deposition testimony about the relationship between Ford and its two brake consultants, Cardno ChemRisk and Exponent.
In his curriculum vitae, Paustenbach, president of Cardno ChemRisk, says he is “a board-certified toxicologist and industrial hygienist with nearly 30 years of experience in risk assessment, environmental engineering, ecotoxicology and occupational health.” The 181-page CV shows he has worked on topics ranging from arsenic in wine to heavy metals in hip implants; authored or co-authored 271 peer-reviewed articles; and given 440 presentations at conferences. He is regularly retained as a defense expert in asbestos litigation and other toxic-tort cases.
Paustenbach offered a window into his thinking in a 2009 article written by a University of Virginia business professor.
“Without a doubt, a large percentage of environmental and occupational claims are simply bogus, intended only to extract money from those who society believes can afford to ‘share the wealth,’” Paustenbach told his interviewer. He said, “The vast majority of cases that I’ve seen were fraudulent with respect to the scientific merit and billions upon billions of dollars are redistributed annually inappropriately — at least from a scientific standpoint.
“… Nonetheless,” Paustenbach said, “I am a firm believer in the wisdom of juries and support giving generous awards to those that have been truly harmed by bad corporate behavior.”
In a 2010 letter to Dolores Nuñez Studier, a lawyer in the Ford general counsel’s office, Paustenbach claimed his firm’s papers had “changed the scientific playing field in the courtroom. You know this better than anyone as you have seen the number of plaintiff verdicts [in asbestos cases] decrease and the cost of settlement go down over time.”
In the letter, which surfaced in the discovery phase of a lawsuit, Paustenbach complained that the fee structure in place between Ford and Chemrisk was “out of date” and too low.
“Dolores, currently, you are among our largest clients,” he wrote. “And, Ford has certainly been a loyal supporter. The Big 3 [automakers] were the foundation of the firm during our formative years, and for this reason, I have tried to go the extra mile to satisfy your needs.”
Asked to explain the letter during a 2014 deposition, Paustenbach said he was merely emphasizing to Studier that “we invested in scientific research to answer questions that remained unanswered in the courtroom for many, many years …. And I was pretty proud of that.” He said he didn’t feel it was fair for his firm to lose money “when, in fact, I was so committed to getting the science straight.”
The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases. “Exposure to asbestos, including chrysotile, causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovaries, and also mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings) [and] asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs),” the WHO says. “No threshold has been identified for the carcinogenic risk of asbestos, including chrysotile.”
OSHA says, “There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber. Asbestos exposures as short in duration as a few days have caused mesothelioma in humans.”
Taking the WHO and OSHA statements at face value, the case against asbestos would seem to be closed: Even someone with very low exposure to the mineral should worry.
In papers published over the past 15 years, however, scientists with Exponent, Cardno ChemRisk and other consulting firms have questioned whether brake mechanics truly are at heightened risk of developing mesothelioma, the disease that has fueled litigation against Ford and others.
A 2004 Exponent paper funded by Ford, GM and Chrysler, for example, concluded that “employment as a motor vehicle mechanic does not increase the risk of developing mesothelioma.” An update of that paper in 2015 found the same result. Each paper was a meta-analysis — an agglomeration of the results of multiple studies that, taken individually, may be too weak to indicate an effect.
In a deposition last October, Exponent’s Mary Jane Teta, a co-author of both meta-analyses, defended her firm’s findings. “I disagree when they say there is no safe level [of asbestos],” she testified. “I know the level of chrysotile … experienced by vehicle mechanics is safe.”
In his statement to the Center, Paustenbach wrote, “It is implausible that nearly 20 epidemiology studies” – on which he bases his legal opinions – “would conclude that there is no increased risk of mesothelioma for the time period during which brakes contained chrysotile asbestos if that were not the appropriate conclusion.”
The studies Paustenbach cites, however, are fraught with limitations, such as small sample sizes, vague job classifications and lack of exposure data. And not all of them found, as he put it, “no increased risk of mesothelioma” among mechanics. In a 1989 paper, for example, a Danish researcher who studied causes of death among auto mechanics reported finding a single case of mesothelioma among her subjects, where none would have been expected in the general population. As with other cancers, she wrote, this number was "too small to state or rule out a potentially increased risk."
A co-author of another paper, Kay Teschke of the University of British Columbia, testified in a 2012 deposition that her research was being mischaracterized.
“Vehicle mechanics do many different things in their day; some might work on engines, some might only work on wheel alignment,” Teschke testified. “And when you dilute the [asbestos] exposure in that way, you can’t find the relationship with the job … It doesn’t mean that people in that job are somehow immune to the effects of the exposure … "
Christian Hartley, a lawyer in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, who has represented about 100 mesothelioma victims in brake cases, said the papers used in the defense of such lawsuits “push all this data together that’s totally incomparable. That’s what gets reported in the literature and is used to persuade judges and some experts. It’s very misleading to think we have any kind of real handle on what a typical mechanic has for exposure.”
Dr. David Egilman, a clinical professor of family medicine at Brown University and editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, argues that the papers are deceptive by design. Many reanalyze previously published studies of workers described as mechanics who may have had no contact with asbestos brakes, he said. The effect, Egilman said, is to dilute the cancer data so the overall risk appears low.
Egilman, who consults for asbestos plaintiffs, spends much of his time rebutting Paustenbach and other industry-funded researchers. “They can throw a lot of things at the wall and hope something sticks with the jury,” he said. “It forces people like me or other scientists to try to clean up each thing that was thrown at the wall, one at a time. And by the end of the day, that could be confusing to a jury or judge.”
Egilman said the body of work underwritten by Ford and other asbestos defendants is being used to try to deprive sick workers, or their families, of compensation. “Some courts have adopted it as a standard,” he said.
More broadly, the industry-funded papers can confuse the public – and even government experts.
In 2009, the National Cancer Institute published a fact sheet on its website stating there was no evidence brake work was associated with an increased risk of mesothelioma or lung cancer. The 2004 meta-analysis funded by the automakers was cited as a reference.
Dr. Arthur Frank, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University, was incredulous.
“What is truly ironic about such a statement is that it is incontrovertible that asbestos, including chrysotile, the type of asbestos found in brakes, does, in fact, cause lung cancer and mesothelioma,” Frank wrote in a letter to the institute’s director obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through a Freedom of Information Act request. “Since we have not banned asbestos in this country, those who might read this statement could well think asbestos brakes are safe, putting at risk both professional and ‘shade tree’ mechanics, and their family members.”
Frank said the meta-analysis cited by the institute was “unreliable and should not serve as the basis for any statement by the NCI.”
Then-NCI Director Dr. John Neiderhuber replied that he had discussed Frank’s critique with an in-house expert who agreed that the language on the website should be amended. The new statement, posted less than two weeks after Frank sent his letter, read that while studies of cancer risks among auto mechanics were limited, “the overall evidence suggests that there is no safe level for asbestos exposure.” The citation of the 2004 paper was deleted.
The brake studies have had global reach. The “chrysotile-is-safe” argument has been used to stave off asbestos bans and preserve markets in developing nations such as India and China, where building materials and other products containing asbestos are widely used.
“The real nefarious part of this research … is that a lot of people who live in those countries are continuing to be exposed under uncontrolled conditions to asbestos,” Egilman said. “That’s the real horror story here.”