The Asbestosis Research Council
What was the Asbestosis Research Council (ARC)? On the surface, the Council was a 1957 initiative set up in response to the continuing escalation of the incidence of asbestosis in the UK. According to its Constitution, the ARC’s prime objective, as stated in 1976, was "to foster research into the causation and prevention of asbestosis and any other diseases possibly associated with exposure to asbestos."
Projects by scientists such as Drs J.M.G. Davis, S. Beckett, J. Beattie, D. Holt et al were funded at universities in Reading, Cambridge, Leeds and Manchester and institutes such as the Strangeways Laboratory, the Institute of Diseases of the Chest and St. Luke’s Hospital, Institute fur Lufthygiene (Dusseldorf) and the ARC Foundation at the Institute of Occupational Medicine. By the time the Council closed, several hundred papers on ARC sponsored research had appeared in scientific journals.
Officially, recipients of ARC funding "always had complete academic freedom to publish their work." Or did they? Not according to Dr. Barry Castleman who states: "By 1963 and onwards, it was the ARC’s policy to require approval by all member companies, of any publication by ARC-funded research. Researchers… regularly submitted pre-publication manuscripts for review, and they were directed to make numerous changes before approvals were granted… Papers approved by the ARC Research Committee had to afterwards be approved by the ARC Management Committee before publication was authorized."
Historian Geoffrey Tweedale concurs. Ten years after the ARC closed down, Tweedale has reassessed its role in his paper: Science or Public Relations?: The Inside Story of the Asbestosis Research Council, 1957-1990. The impression of an independent science-based organization could not have been further from the truth. The ARC began and remained commercially motivated. Tweedale points out: "the ARC was run by industrialists and not by scientists." The growing importance of the ARC to industry was reflected by a fifty-fold increase in its budget from £4,100 in 1957 to £230,000 in 1982. Seven million pounds of contributions bought its members, British Belting and Asbestos, Cape Industries and Turner and Newall, control: "Strategy was set by the management committee, which in turn responded to the wishes of the sponsoring directors… these men did not see the ARC as fundamentally a council for scientific research. Ultimately, it was an attempt to capture the scientific agenda and influence public policy."
The name of the ARC was well-chosen; the combination of words sounds quasi-official and reassuringly medical. The impression created of independent, benevolent concern was manipulated by industry to great effect. While statements by asbestos manufacturers would have been disbelieved, information disseminated by the ARC and later the Asbestos Information Center was readily digested.
From the 1970s, the ARC published and distributed brochures on various subjects including: "a code of practice, a technical note on dust counting and a number of ‘control and safety guides’ on such subjects as asbestos spraying and handling consignments of asbestos fibre… Their leitmotif – that asbestos was a ‘safe’ material – was contentious even at the time. The ARC leaflet on asbestos spraying, for example, aimed to bolster a technology that was about to be banned in America and that even the ARC knew greatly exceeded official safe dust levels."
February 1, 2001