Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine
345 East 102nd Street
New York, New York 10029
Phone: (212) 241-5555
Although you may not recognize his name, it’s certain that Dr. Irving J. Selikoff has had an impact on your daily life. A pioneering medical researcher, Selikoff is credited with documenting the link between asbestos exposure and industrial diseases, as well as with influencing the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other governmental entities to institute asbestos regulations.
Born in New York City in 1915, Selikoff attended Columbia University for his undergraduate degree and then traveled to Scotland to study medicine at the Royal Colleges. After interning in Newark, New Jersey, Selikoff joined New York’s storied Mt. Sinai Medical Center as an assistant in anatomy and pathology. He began conducting clinical studies into respiratory and pulmonary diseases, and is known as one of the pioneers of tuberculosis treatment. He won the prestigious Lasker Award in Medicine in 1955 for his work in clinically testing the drug isoniazid for use in tuberculosis patients.
In the 1950s, Selikoff opened his own practice in Paterson, New Jersey. After adding the Asbestos Workers union as members, he began to notice that he was diagnosing several new cases of mesothelioma each year, although the general incidence of the disease was only about five in every 100,000. This led Selikoff to begin researching the connection between industrial exposure to asbestos and asbestos-containing materials and mesothelioma.
Dr. Selikoff eventually conducted more than 70 different clinical studies, encompassing over 20,000 individual subjects. His research into the causality between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma led to the establishment of the Environmental Sciences Laboratory (which later became the Division of Environmental and Occupational Medicine) at Mt. Sinai.
Although the connections between occupational exposure to asbestos-containing materials and respiratory diseases had been known for centuries-even the ancient Romans had identified an asbestos cancer-it was Dr. Selikoff who made some of the first strides in identifying and explaining the mechanisms by which asbestos entered and affected the body, eventually leading to scarring of the lungs and tumors. Selikoff’s work took him on-site in factories, mills, processing plants and other job sites. At times he was denied access by the companies involved, so he gathered medical histories and information from the workers in union halls and rented schools.
As he gathered evidence that the devastating cancer mesothelioma was directly linked to an occupational history of asbestos exposure, Selikoff decided that it was time to take on the asbestos industry – an enormous task. Because of asbestos’s many useful properties as a construction and insulating material, the asbestos industry was extremely lucrative. Many people did not want to hear that this so-called “miracle mineral” might actually be causing cancer and other adverse health effects. In fact, Selikoff’s credentials, motives and findings were all called into question by his detractors, who claimed that he had not only overstated the dangers of asbestos, but that he had even faked his medical degree.
Nevertheless, the tide had begun to turn, and with it came numerous changes and upheavals in the asbestos industry. OSHA and other government agencies began to regulate the use of asbestos, and asbestos-removal projects were undertaken. The Manville Corporation – which was at the time the world’s largest supplier of asbestos – filed for bankruptcy protection, so afraid were they of multi-million dollar personal injury lawsuits being brought against them. The government began to pass laws regulating not only the use of asbestos in new construction and manufacturing, but also the removal and disposal of asbestos products, as well as the protocol and safety precautions required for those who worked with the asbestos.
Time, as well as continued research, fully vindicated Selikoff, and he went on to receive awards from the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Cancer Society and the American Public Health Association. The Environmental and Occupational Health Division of Mt. Sinai, over which he presided as director, was renamed the Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine after his death in 1992, at age 77.
Selikoff also co-founded the Collegium Ramazzini, which brings together 180 experts in the fields of environmental and occupational health from more than 30 countries, along with Cesare Maltoni and others. Dr. Selikoff also was made an honorary member of the Heat and Frost Insulators and the Asbestos Workers Union in recognition of the contributions he made to medicine on behalf of asbestos workers.
Although mesothelioma remains an incurable cancer, its connection to asbestos exposure, which were firmly established through the pioneering medical and social research of Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, means that this disease may one day be eradicated.