Thought control: Brush devised strategy to shape knowledge


A dozen years ago, Brush Wellman and its amazing metal, beryllium, were under increasing attack.

More and more workers were getting beryllium disease, customers were being scared off, and scientists were saying the metal was more dangerous than previously thought.

Brush decided to fight back -- and not with simple public relations.

The company, industry documents show, systematically and aggressively set out to influence the scientific knowledge of the hazards of beryllium.

It created a national committee of doctors and scientists to "promote research" -- a group handpicked, organized, and primarily funded by Brush.

It published its own textbook on beryllium, distributing the book to medical schools across the country.

It helped establish a Washington-based industry group to promote beryllium products and to attack damaging scientific studies.

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"It's an industry funded group of doctors who are hired to provide specific information that companies can use for ammunition for public relations"

-- attorney James Heckbert commenting on the Brush-funded science group

Indeed, Brush's actions offer a rare glimpse at what a corporation facing mounting medical and public relations problems will do to protect its product.

In this case, Brush devised a detailed, year-by-year strategy to take greater control of how scientists, doctors, students, and the public viewed beryllium.

This included spending more than $1 million on its science group and pushing for medical papers to discredit research that had found beryllium extremely hazardous, company records disclosed in recent lawsuits show.

Brush's actions have far-reaching effects, in part, because the Cleveland-based company is America's leading producer of beryllium, an extremely hard, lightweight metal used to make everything from nuclear weapons to space probes to golf clubs.

So thousands of workers, customers, and doctors rely on Brush for accurate health and safety information.

Some victim advocates say Brush has been less than honest.

"They pervert science and injure people," says Theresa Norgard, a social research associate at the University of Michigan whose husband, Dave, contracted beryllium disease at Brush's plant outside Elmore, 20 miles southeast of Toledo.

Peter Infante, a senior administrator with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says Brush's textbook is clearly "propaganda." But he adds that the company can't control the knowledge of the disease because too many scientists are studying the issue.

Beryllium disease is a chronic lung ailment caused by inhaling microscopic bits of beryllium dust. Researchers estimate that 1,200 Americans have contracted the disease, which is often fatal and has no cure. At Brush Wellman, 127 workers have developed the disease -- 50 at the Elmore plant.

A former Brush executive says the company's actions in the late 1980s weren't designed to deceive anyone or hide anything.

"They were meant to do the same thing we've always done: try to find out what the hell is going on and tell people what we know, when we know it," says Martin Powers, who helped devise the company's strategy to improve beryllium's image.

The strategy emerged in 1986, when Brush faced an increase in disease, customer concerns, and damaging scientific studies.

Top Brush officials, company records show, met for two days at a Cleveland-area hotel to devise a strategy "to protect the company from adverse medical, legal, public relations or legislative consequences."

Their conclusion: Brush must expand safety programs and worker training.

But they also proposed a massive plan to combat scientific studies that had found beryllium was extremely hazardous -- studies Brush thought were inaccurate and "very damaging."

"These actions should be systematically approached over the next two years," one Brush document says.

"The ultimate consequences to the company's future of not going forward with this program could be severe," another says.


Documents turned over by Brush Wellman in recent lawsuits show that the company has tried to take greater control of what doctors, regulators, and the public know about the dangers of beryllium. Here is an excerpt from a Jan. 23, 1987, memorandum from retired Brush vice president Martin Powers and company medical director Dr. Otto Preuss to Brush executive James Gulick:


The Need

The medical and industrial hygiene information on beryllium is largely obsolete and inaccurate. With the exception of a relatively few documents such as Eisenbud's 1984 paper on the Beryllium Registry, the literature on beryllium published in the last twenty years has been very damaging.

The literature is constantly being cited, either to our doctors at medical meetings in rebuttal of the Brush experience, or by potential customers as the cause of their unwillingness to use our products. Federal Government regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA publish much of this material and then in the absence of good data, cite these erroneous documents to support regulatory activities that are harmful and expensive to Brush.

The Solution

What is needed to combat this situation is a complete, accurate and well written textbook on beryllium health and safety. It will have to be financed by Brush (or Brush and NGK?) and the bulk of the work done by Marty Powers and Otto Preuss. To be fully accepted and credible, however, it will have to be published under the auspices of some not-for-profit organization such as a university or medical group. We estimate the project would cost about $50,000 and take two years to complete.

In addition to the book, we should have a number of medical papers published in prestigious medical books. In order to have these papers published timely enough to be used as up-to-date references for the book, one would have to begin their preparation without further delay. This is also important because several papers should be written in coauthorship with reknowned secondary authors who, in general, require additional time for their review and approval.

The company proposed writing its own textbook and several medical papers. One company document names which Brush officials should write the papers, where they should be published -- even what they should be titled.

One paper was to attack the links between beryllium and lung cancer.

"Preferably," a Brush document states, "the primary authors should be Drs. MacMahon and Roth," two company consultants. "However, most of the work on this paper would have to be done by Brush Wellman."

And Brush wanted all of these papers written quickly, and so they could be used as references for its textbook.

The textbook was published in 1991 and titled Beryllium: Biomedical and Environmental Aspects. Brush paid for it and sent copies to hundreds of medical schools, businesses, and libraries across the country.

It's on the shelves of many of America's top medical schools, such as Harvard Medical School and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, as well as at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Locally, it's at the Medical College of Ohio, the University of Toledo, and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

It is edited by two former Brush officials and a Pennsylvania physician who has received research money from the beryllium industry. Many chapters were written by Brush's executives, doctors, and lawyers.

"What that book is is the company line," says James Heckbert, a Colorado attorney for about 50 workers with beryllium disease who are suing Brush.

The chapter on beryllium's health risks is written by Dr. Otto Preuss, a former Brush medical director and one of the book's editors. He states a long-held position of the company: No worker has ever gotten sick when exposed to levels of beryllium dust below the federal safety limit.

He states this as fact, discounting studies that have found otherwise. Dr. Preuss does not elaborate, but a footnote gives the source for why these studies should be discounted: His own letter to the editor of the British Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Mr. Powers, the former Brush official and one of the textbook's editors, says the book is fair.

But he acknowledges that there are "some statements in there that I think are too dogmatic" -- opinions, he says, that are stated as facts.

In addition to the book, Brush has:

  • Arranged graduate-level seminars at universities. One Brush document states: "We need to actively educate the university professors on our materials and health issues in order to train the next generation of engineers on the truths and myths about beryllium-containing materials."
  • Helped create the Beryllia Ceramic Development Association, an industry group in Washington. Brush says it was formed, in part, "to combat erroneous health and safety information being disseminated" about beryllium products.
  • Helped establish the Beryllium Industry Scientific Advisory Committee, consisting of Brush's company doctor and several scientists from noted universities, such as Harvard.

The science group is particularly controversial.

It is funded entirely by the beryllium industry, with Brush picking up most of the costs. Records show that Brush has contributed more than $1 million to the group since it was formed in 1990.

Mr. Powers, the group's executive director, has received more than $230,000 for his time and expenses.

He says he and a Brush consultant picked the original members. Since then, the group has picked its own members. The group meets a couple of times a year, and members are paid $2,000 a day, plus travel expenses.

Mr. Powers says the group was created to finance worthwhile research. One current study is trying to determine whether there is a genetic predisposition for getting beryllium disease.

Still, others see the science group differently.

"It's an industry-funded group of doctors who are hired to provide specific information that the companies can use for ammunition for public relations," says Mr. Heckbert, the attorney for the beryllium victims.

Industry documents turned over in recent court cases show that the group is not just interested in science.

Its charter says its purpose is, in part, to "develop and implement a strategy to address...the perception of beryllium as a human carcinogen."

Brush has long fought the notion that beryllium causes cancer, and one company document states that the science group "will provide the scientific basis for our cancer strategy."

At a meeting in 1992, the science group discussed how cancer was not just a medical issue but a "public relations and marketing problem" as well, according to minutes of the meeting.

The scientists wanted a lawyer "familiar with these kind of broad strategy considerations," so they asked Brush attorney John Newman to address the group.

He did, warning the scientists that "if beryllium is perceived as causing lung cancer, regardless how scientifically unsound that perception may be, lawsuits alleging cancer will ensue."

The Brush attorney then advised the scientists how best to deal with that threat.

A few months later, in 1993, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, was deciding whether to classify beryllium as a human carcinogen. The beryllium science group sent member Dr. Paul Kotin to the meeting in Lyon, France, to argue that the metal did not cause cancer, industry records indicate.

But the cancer organization still ruled that beryllium was a human carcinogen.

Dr. Kotin is now chairman of the beryllium science group. The 82-year-old retired cancer researcher says his visit to France had "an element of industry advocacy."

But he says he did not go to misinform anybody; rather, he wanted to present the industry's data so others could make informed decisions.

Dr. Kotin has never published a paper on beryllium, but he has had nearly 50 years' experience in environmental health. He has taught medicine at several universities and was a senior officer at Johns-Manville Corp. in the 1970s when the asbestos-maker was facing scores of civil suits over asbestos-related disorders and death.

He says the beryllium science group is honest and worthwhile.

"I have been on advisory committees for many, many industries and many, many unions. This is as good as I've ever been on."