Prepare to be shocked. A Big Three automaker knowingly risked people’s lives to save a few pennies per part. No, this time it isn’t General Motors and ignition switches in the spotlight. Information has come out that Ford Motor Company continued to use asbestos-lined brakes for twenty years after internal memos expressed concern for the safety of mechanics who would breathe the asbestos dust when working on those brakes.
An excellent investigative report by Jim Morris of Public Integrity details Ford’s decades-long struggle with lawsuits brought by mechanics and the $40 million the company has spent on developing a body of scientific literature aimed at casting doubt on the link between asbestos brakes and mesothelioma, the highly aggressive form of cancer long associated with asbestos.
“They’ve published a lot, but they’ve really produced no new science,” said John Dement, a professor in Duke University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and an asbestos researcher for more than four decades. “Fifteen years ago, I thought the issue of asbestos risk assessment was pretty much defined. All they’ve accomplished is to try to generate doubt where, really, little doubt existed.”
One of the scientists Dement refers to is toxicologist Dennis Paustenbach. In 2001, Paustenbach, then vice president with the consulting firm Exponent, received a call from Ford lawyer Darrell Grams inviting him to study the possibility of a connection between mesothelioma and brake work. Paustenbach eagerly accepted the invitation. “I really started to get serious about studying asbestos after I met Mr. Grams, that’s for sure,” Paustenbach testified in June 2015. And why wouldn’t his interest in asbestos be piqued? Ford has paid Exponent $18.2 million. Another $21 million has gone to a consulting firm called Cardno ChemRisk, a company Paustenbach founded in 1985.
Ford’s money has paid for journal articles and expert testimony that is friendly to its position as the defense in civil litigation brought by mechanics suffering from mesothelioma, a disease almost exclusively attributed to exposure to asbestos. While Ford’s science has not proven particularly strong in casting doubt on the link between brake dust and mesothelioma, its sheer volume makes it difficult for plaintiffs to counter with similar numbers of studies and experts. In short, Ford is able to buy more science than plaintiffs can afford to keep up with. However, in the last decade, 109 physicians and scientists in 17 countries have signed legal briefs affirming that asbestos in brakes can cause mesothelioma.
And Ford knows the science is against them. In fact, a 1971 company memo expresses concern over the danger of using asbestos in brakes and reveals that the company was exploring alternative materials. One such alternative, made of carbon and metal, proved promising, but, the memo says, “the cost penalty is severe ($1.25/car just for front-end brakes).” Clearly, the dangers of asbestos have long been known. Nevertheless, it took Ford until the mid1990’s to finalize its phase-out of asbestos-lined brakes.
That corporations put profits ahead of human health and lives is by now an obvious fact. In fact, a corporation’s first legal duty is to maximize profits for shareholders. Two question, however, present themselves. First, how do Ford executives and scientists-for-hire like Paustenbach live with themselves? Are they able to persuade themselves that they are telling the truth? Or do they feel so distant from their victims that they are able to fend off guilt? The second question is this: How long will we as a society allow our lives to be controlled by corporations and their amoral worldview?
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