Asbestos Information Association

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Asbestos Information Association

This organisation was established by a group of six major asbestos companies, under the direction of the dominant US asbestos fiber and products manufacturer, Johns-Manville Asbestos.

It was run by Matt Swetonic who was a staff member of PR company, Hill & Knowlton. He used the title 'Executive Secretary' (he later boosted himself to "Executive President").[1]

Despite the lofty aims listed in its promotional material, the main purpose of this organisation was to counter, devaluate or dismiss the growing scientific evidence implicating asbestos in serious disease conditions.[2]

Asbestos Background

    • During the years of World War II, and for nearly two decades after, asbestos was widely promoted as a "wonder material" because it could be woven or incorporated (as reinforcing) into other composite materials; it was inflammable and resistant to most chemicals. The first scientist to begin a crusade against asbestos was Dr. Irving J. Selikoff at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. This occurred at about the time that research into the health effects of smoking was also implicating cigarettes in lung cancer.
    • World War II had massively boosted the mining and use of asbestos, and military service had also triggered a smoking epidemic. Asbestos- and tobacco-induced lung-cancer (and heart diseases) had relatively long incubation periods, but they began to make their presence known about twenty-years after the war exposure.
    • In 1960 Selikoff was warning workers in the asbestos industry (and those previously exposed) not to smoke because of the extremely high rate of lung cancers that each product produced. He was mainly concerned with the millions of US shipyard workers who had installed asbestos lagging, and with naval gunners who were showered with the fibres when their guns fired.
    • Selikoff set the tobacco industry and the asbestos companies at loggerheads. Each industry began trying to lay the blame on the other for the cancer epidemic.
    • Also in a study for the US Labor Department, Selikoff's associate Dr. William J. Nicholson estimated that between 1940 and 1979, 18.8 million US workers had been significantly exposed to asbestos in their work. Nicholson concluded that this history of exposure would yield 432,000 excess cancer deaths in the following sixty years[3] since the major killer diseases associated with asbestos (asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung-cancer) had incubation periods of up to 40 years.
    • Then in 1968 at the height of the initial cigarette-cancer scare, Selikoff wrote an article in a medical magazine pointing out that smoking asbestos workers had "92 times the risk" of dying from lung cancer as those nonsmoking, non-asbestos workers. By discovering the extraordinary synergistic relationships between tobacco and asbestos, Selikoff now became a primary threat to both industries -- and the PR attack-dogs were turned out to discredit him.
    • He had also published a study implicating the IntraUterine Device (IUD) for contraception in health problems, which gave the tobacco industry an automatic ally.

Asbestos Problems

Johns Manville had refused to help the medical investigators from Mt Sinai, and in 1972 it both funded and organised the Asbestos Information Association to counter the growing scientific evidence, and attack the associated environmental and health activism. [4] This organization was directed by executives at Johns-Manville but run by Swetonic from Hill & Knowlton. So by 1972 [Hill & Knowlton] was working for both industries - asbestos and tobacco.

Matt Swetonic ran the asbestos industry projects (he acted both as spokesman and industry advisor) [1] while a number of other H&K operators (including Leonard Zahn a scientific lobbyist and science-writer) worked through the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (later the Council for Tobacco Research). Both of these organizations occupied office space in the Empire State Building in New York on a floor directly below H&K's offices, and they shared H&K staff.

Through H&K's intervention, eventually there was a formal coming together of the asbestos and tobacco interests with an agreement to cooperate, rather than apportion blame. This was at the time when Congress was considering asbestos compensation legislation: DDT had just been banned,the tobacco industry was also under legislative threat to its broadcast advertising, and their were new requirements to include health warnings on packets.

In this letter from Leonard Zahn to John Mansville's Vice President, FJ Solon (ccd to Matt Swetonic) Zahn comments on a scientific report by Selikoff which could generate trouble on both the tobacco and asbestos fronts [2]. This document came from the tobacco industry files (they were automatically copied on asbestos issues by H&K).

Not long after after, Solon made a public statement characterising Dr Selikoff as a "cruel showman", saying: "To terrorize people who worked in shipyards 30 years ago, and now can't do a God-damned thing about it - that's something I couldn't square with my conscience." [3]

Sources and Articles


  1. Matt Swetonic, "Taming the Asbestos Monster", Heartland Perspectives, The Heartland Institute, November 5, 2002.
  2. "Profile of the AIA/NA", Bates THKP0004989, approx 1972. (Pdf).
  3. Ronald Brownstein, "Asbestos Litigation a Legal Nightmare That Congress Is Being Asked to End", National Journal, September 24, 1983, page 1942.(Pdf)
  4. Ronald L. Motley and Anne McGinness Kearse, "Decades of deception: secrets of lead, asbestos, and tobacco.", The Free Library, American Association for Justice, 1999.

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