Will Report Quiet Asbestos Controversy?

Early this year, Montreal's McGill University became the focus of accusations that the asbestos industry essentially had bought a favorable report by one of its professors by financially supporting his research on the health effects of chrysotile asbestos. CBC News broadcast a report in February claiming retired Professor John Corbett McDonald and other researchers had received more than $1 million from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association to carry out their lengthy study of 11,000 miners and mill workers, prompting McGill's vice-principal of Health Affairs and dean of Medicine, Dr. David Eidelman, to request a report from the university's research integrity officer, Dr. Abe Fuks.

Released Oct. 17 by the university, Fuks' report says there is no evidence the companies that supported the research influenced its findings. McDonald, who retired in the late 1980s, properly acknowledged financial support from the industry in his publications, Fuks reported. McDonald and his research team demonstrated that all forms of asbestos increase the risk of lung cancer, and their findings "have been replicated by other groups" and "their robustness has endured many critical analyses and legal inquiries," he concluded.

The CBC News report, broadcast at the same time both of Canada's still-operating asbestos mines were in severe financial difficulty, with one filing bankruptcy, contended McDonald's research was used by the federal and Quebec governments to support continued production of asbestos.

"I thank Dr. Fuks for his careful review of this past research and for his recommendations for addressing questions and concerns that have arisen," Eidelman said. "As an immediate response, the McGill Faculty of Medicine will move forward on the RIO's recommendation to organize an academic conference on safe alternatives to asbestos, particularly in the developing world, and other topics of public interest. It is our role as a university to promote discussion and debate on issues raised by current events so as to ensure that new knowledge continues to be generated."

Critics were not convinced by Fuks' report. Kathleen Ruff, an anti-asbestos campaigner, called it "a whitewash [that is] biased, misleading, and inaccurate." She said it excludes critical information that was submitted to McGill, such as:

  • Asbestos industry minutes show that McDonald collaborated with Johns Manville and asbestos industry leaders to suppress medical evidence proving asbestos was causing far more harm to workers' health than the industry claimed.
  • Together with the asbestos industry, McDonald lobbied the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration to prevent the adoption of stricter asbestos exposure standards, claiming exposure to high levels of asbestos caused no harm to health and should continue to be allowed, and McDonald told OSHA that he received no industry funds and instead identified himself solely as chair of McGill's Department of Epidemiology. He denied any connection with the asbestos industry even though he was receiving large amounts of funding from and working closely with Quebec asbestos mining companies.
  • McDonald used his research to argue at a World Trade Organization tribunal that countries should not have the right to ban chrysotile asbestos, maintaining it was virtually harmless.

"The toxicity of chrysotile asbestos continues to be denied in India, Russia, and other countries thanks to industry-funded studies, such as Professor McDonald's, claiming it is virtually innocuous," said Dr. Colin Soskolne of the University of Alberta, Edmonton.

Ruff said McGill was requested to carry out an independent, transparent, and thorough investigation but did not do so. "This has been a public relations operation, not a credible investigation, and it brings dishonor on McGill," she said. "What is needed is an outside, independent, and transparent investigation. If McGill is confident about the quality of McDonald's research, an independent panel will be helpful to them. However it is clear that they can't handle the truth."

The Canadian Cancer Society wanted the mines to close. In Septmeber 2012, it released a statement applauding the Canadian federal government for announcing it would no longer oppose the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention, an international list of hazardous substances. "This is the right decision," said Paul Lapierre, vice president of public affairs and cancer control for the society. "We are very pleased to see that the government recognizes that all forms of asbestos, including chysotile, cause cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society believes that all efforts must be made to eliminate exposure to asbestos and to eliminate asbestos-related diseases.

"This is an important first step," he continued. "It's imperative that the health of people around the world be put ahead of the interests of the asbestos industry. We also welcome the government's $50 million plan to support the affected community."

Posted by Jerry Laws on Oct 22, 2012


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