Twisting Lung Function Measurements Based on Race

How "race-correcting" lung function measurements became the basis of an asbestos lawsuit.

  • "Breathing Race into the Machine" by Lundy Braun explores the use of the spirometer to naturalize racial and ethnic differences in lung function.
    Cover courtesy University of Minnesota Press
  • Pulmonologists had a long-standing belief that lung function measurements differed among racial and ethnic groups.
    Photo by Fotolia/mathisa

In Breathing Race Into the Machine (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), science studies scholar Lundy Braun traces the little-known history of the spirometer to reveal the social and scientific processes by which medical instruments have worked to naturalize racial and ethnic differences. In this excerpt from the introduction, "Measuring Vital Capacity," Braun introduces us to the case of a company’s attempts to limit disability claims by using “race-corrected” lung function measurement data.

"Precision carries immense weight in the twentieth century . . . It connotes trustworthiness and elegance in the actions or products of humans and machines. Precision is everything that ambiguity, uncertainty, messiness, and unreliability are not. It is responsible, nonemotional, objective, and scientific. It shows quality . . . These values of precision have become part of our heritage."

— M. Norton Wise, The Values of Precision

On March 25, 1999, the front page of the Baltimore Sun featured a startling headline, “Racial Basis for Asbestos Lawsuits? Owens Corning Seeks More Stringent Standards for Blacks.” According to the article, the American insulation manufacturer Owens Corning was engaged in another legal maneuver to limit disability claims. This time it would be more difficult for African Americans in Baltimore to qualify for compensation.

Home to former shipyards and Bethlehem Steel’s plant at Sparrow’s Point, Baltimore had been the site of endless legal wrangling in a massive lawsuit against asbestos manufacturers for decades. Over the years, lawyers for Owens Corning made numerous attempts to delay proceedings and many verdicts went against the defendants. But, invoking a racial basis for disability assessment represented a troubling twist in the legal landscape. How, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, could there be a racial basis for legal redress in the United States?

Plaintiffs would soon learn that Owens Corning’s motion rested on a long-standing belief among pulmonologists that racial groups—particularly “blacks” and “whites”—differed in the capacity and the function of their lungs. In fact, the idea of difference is so widely accepted that manufacturers program race and ethnic “correction” into the spirometer, the instrument that measures lung function.

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