New Yorkers, the nation and the world lost a dedicated physician and worker advocate this week with the passing of Stephen M. Levin, 70, from cancer. Dr. Levin was a professor of preventative medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and most recently, a prominent figure fighting for a long-term program to identify and treat individuals who worked or volunteered at the post-9/11 World Trade Center site.
As the New York Daily News reports, Levin watched as first responders worked in the poisonous cloud of dust in 2001 at the World Trade Center site.
“The city Health Department rebuffed his pleas to issue warnings and an alert to area physicians. So, with Mount Sinai colleagues, he mapped out a plan of treatment for the sick who soon began showing up.”
David Michaels, PhD, MPH, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA and long-time friend of Dr. Levin said
“Steve was an outstanding clinician, scientist and advocate with a deep, lifelong commitment to occupational safety and health. He made a huge contribution to understanding and improving the health of workers in New York and the nation, and he will profoundly missed.”
Writing in his book “City of dust: illness, arrogance and 9/11,” author Anthony DePalma noted:
“Levin was a nationally recognized leader in the field of occupational medicine. He had developed an abiding affection for working-class people and a penchant for making trouble for the corporations that exploited them.”
One of my favorite papers published by Dr. Levin was the 1992 commentary “Prevention Delayed is Prevention Denied,” in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. He was remarking on a colleague’s [Enterline] historical analysis of society’s failure to protect workers and communities from asbestos exposure despite evidence of its harmful effects. Levin writes:
This is “a discouraging analysis of the failure to utilize scientific information to warn about and protect against the health consequences of exposure to asbestos. If excuses for delay can be found in the case of this, the most studied of human carcinogens, what can workers expect from the scientific, regulatory, and public health communities when less well studied, less well documented hazards are addressed? ….From Kenneth Lynch’s work in the mid-1930s until Irving Selikoff’s studies were reported in 1964 [Selikoff et al., 1964], the silence continued for yet another thirty years, effectively ensuring that millions of workers would remain unaware of the risks of their uncontrolled exposures to asbestos dust, to their own health, and to their families’ as well, since they invariably brought the dust home with their work clothes.
“Powerful economic incentives (some would say imperatives) were at work. Hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos were sold, to be put into refineries, chemical plants, powerhouses, ships, schools, public buildings, and homes. Business was good for the manufacturers of asbestos products; warnings about health consequences of their use could only interfere with sales.”
“What is most disquieting is that the same economic forces, encouraging the exploitation of ‘scientific uncertainty’ to delay regulation and reduction of exposure, continue to operate today. There continue to be abundant incentive and opportunity to seize upon uncertainty to say ‘nothing should be done yet’ about a wide spectrum of workplace hazards. Dr. Enterline’s review details the sad history of failed opportunity to prevent asbestos-related illness. The question remains whether we can learn to use scientific information more expeditiously to prevent disease and protect the public’s health or whether, for each hazard, we must await the accumulation of a sufficient weight of data to crush attempts at delay, concealment, and deceit.”
Stephen M. Levin earned his medical degree in 1967 from New York University School of Medicine in 1967, and worked side-by-side with Dr. Irving Selikoff in his occupational medicine program at Mount Sinai. Over 40 years, Dr. Levin treated, counseled and fought for thousands of patients who were ill because hazardous exposures in their workplaces. Best known for his knowledge of asbestos-related diseases, Dr. Levin also studied workers exposed to lead, solvents, mercury, reproductive toxins, and ergonomic hazards. He was recognized in 2009 by the Collegium Ramazzini with its prestigous Irving J. Selikoff Award.