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Filter Factory : Asbestos, Cigarette Link Probed

January 19, 1988|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer and Myron Levin is studying the tobacco industry under a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which makes grants to journalists. and

WEST GROTON, Mass. — By the time he was 40, Milton Wheeler was too short of breath to fix the kids' mini-bikes or play a round of golf. He had to quit his job as a policeman--and his dream of becoming chief--there being no place for a small town cop who couldn't haul a stretcher.

Wheeler spent his last months tethered to an oxygen tank, taking an hour and a half to totter to the bathroom and back to bed.

"He stared at the bathroom, thinking about how he was going to get in there, and wouldn't let anyone help him get in there, and that's how he lived his life," his oldest son Garry recalled.

In 1982, soon after his 50th birthday, Milton Wheeler died of asbestosis, a disease caused by the scarring of the lungs by asbestos.

Worked With Asbestos

Asbestosis was a word he'd never heard until the doctors said he had it. In a fleeting, nearly forgotten chapter of his life, Wheeler worked with asbestos at a paper mill for just a few months in 1953-54. His exposure must have been very heavy, for asbestosis usually signifies years of asbestos exposure.

Wheeler's job was making asbestos material for the filters of Kent cigarettes. It was the marriage of two notorious health hazards--asbestos and cigarettes--that led many at the mill on a sorrowful procession to early death. At the time, there was little talk of the dangers of asbestos, but the link between smoking and lung cancer was getting increased attention in the press. Threatened with the loss of jittery customers, the tobacco companies launched a swarm of new filter brands to convince smokers that their habit could be safe.

'Health Protection'

Among the most touted new brands was Kent, introduced in 1952 by P. Lorillard Co. (now known as Lorillard Inc., the nation's fourth-largest cigarette maker). Something of a maverick among cigarette firms, Lorillard came closer than its rivals--then or since--to admitting that smoking was harmful. It said Kent's "Micronite" filter offered "the greatest health protection in cigarette history," and was designed for "the one out of every three smokers who is unusually sensitive to tobacco tars and nicotine."

In its advertising, Lorillard said its quest for the new filter "ended in an atomic energy plant, where the makers of Kent found a material being used to filter air of microscopic impurities."

Another ad described Micronite as "a pure, dust-free, completely harmless material. . . ."

In reality, the "dust-free, completely harmless material" contained crocidolite, also called "African blue" asbestos for its origin and bluish color and regarded by many experts as the most hazardous of the six asbestos minerals.

It was used in the filter from 1952 at least until 1957, a period in which Americans puffed their way through more than 13 billion Kents. It is unknown if Kent smokers inhaled asbestos from the filter, or if they have experienced any more cancer than smokers of other brands. It is also uncertain if Lorillard knew anything about the risks of asbestos, which had not been widely publicized at the time.

Lorillard would not respond to written questions on these subjects, nor to verbal requests to three vice presidents to tell the company's side. It offered only this statement, by Sara Ridgway, vice president for public relations:

"We do not have asbestos in our products, nor have we had for many years. That is all I'm going to say."

The Micronite filter was developed jointly by Lorillard and Hollingsworth & Vose Co., a Massachusetts-based manufacturer of paper and filter products. The company set up a subsidiary, H&V Specialties Inc., to supply Lorillard from plants in West Groton and Rochdale, near Boston.

Rolls of Asbestos

According to correspondence between the firms, rolls of asbestos material were shipped to Lorillard factories in Jersey City, N.J., and Louisville. This correspondence--produced in connection with lawsuits on behalf of dead or ill Specialties workers--shows that the filter was a blend of 30% crocidolite and 70% cotton and acetate.

Lorillard still uses the Micronite trademark. But for reasons it won't explain, Lorillard severed its arrangement with Specialties, prompting Hollingsworth to fold the subsidiary in 1957.

In August that year, an article in Reader's Digest casually mentioned that the Kent filter had contained asbestos, and that a new recipe had been developed. With the hazards of asbestos unknown to readers--and apparently to the Digest staff--what might have been a sensational disclosure instead proved to be a forgettable detail. In fact, the article praised the Kent filter as better than rivals in trapping tar and nicotine.

Lorillard itself recounted the filter's redesign--but not the reason for it--in "Lorillard and Tobacco," a company history.

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