Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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Irving Selikoff

Irving Selikoff

Irving Selikoff
Medical researcher Irving Selikoff (1915–1992) is often regarded as the father of occupational medicine (Figure 1).1 Throughout his career he conducted investigations of job sites and, when denied access, went to union halls to gather medical histories and clinical information directly from workers.

In the 1960s, Selikoff quantified the health effects of asbestos exposure in the workplace by documenting asbestos-related diseases among industrial workers. In 1974, he joined a team of doctors examining miners at Thetford Mines in Quebec, which he described as having the worst working conditions on the continent. Subsequently, Selikoff and his colleagues (1980) 2 studied insulation workers in the United States and Canada to explore the association between asbestos exposure and deaths from lung cancer.

They found the death rate for lung cancer among the asbestos insulation workers was higher than for the general population (Figure 2). For example, 25 to 29 years after exposure to asbestos, the number of deaths associated with lung cancer was 5 times higher among insulation workers than the general population. The decline in deaths after the 30-35 year period may be the result of the survivor-effect. Over time, deaths associated with asbestos, cigarette smoking, or other occupational exposures may plateau because the composition of the surviving cohort is no longer the same as the original cohort.

Eventually, Selikoff’s work led to enhanced methods of epidemiological, clinical, and laboratory research that extended into all areas of occupational health and confirmed the need for workplaces free of unnecessary risk from asbestos and other occupational hazards.