Brown professor David Egilman questions asbestos research
McGill professors defend the university’s internal investigation on former professor McDonald’s controversial research
On Jan. 4, David Egilman, a clinical professor in the department of family medicine at Brown University, debated members of the McGill community on the topic of asbestos research at McGill. The presentation, which Egilman called a “counter-conference,” meant to address a talk given by McGill Epidemiology Professor Bruce Case earlier that day.
According to Egilman, the purpose of the counter-conference was to “present critical information to the public regarding McGill’s ongoing refusal to address damning evidence of asbestos research improprieties, and improper conduct by former Chair of McGill’s Epidemiology Department, Dr. [John] Corbett McDonald.”
Egilman focused primarily on discounting the body of research done by McDonald and his team of researchers into Quebec asbestos mines from the 1960s to the late 1990s. In a paper published in 1998 that McDonald co-wrote, he indicates that, when taken at face value, the data he collected proves there is a protective effect of asbestos.
“That means asbestos protected against the effect they were studying, and the effect they were studying was lung cancer,” Egilman said.
According to Egilman, McDonald’s research is still used today by asbestos companies to advocate for the use of asbestos in countries like Brazil and India.
“This is a policy problem,” Egilman said. “This is not some esoteric academic issue. Asbestos is being sold, and mined, and dumped in developing countries.”
Egilman expressed his belief that the only way to prevent this research from being used by asbestos companies is for McGill to withdraw the 1998 paper.
McGill professors who attended Egilman’s talk debated with Egilman on this point, arguing that Egilman is targeting the wrong place to get the paper withdrawn.
“Your job now is no longer with McGill University,” Eduardo Franco, McGill’s interim chair of oncology, said. “If this is truly an important job at hand for the advocacy you propose, which I think is misdirected, I would work in a different direction with advocacy groups and with professional sciences … [your job] is with the journals.”
Franco also expressed the belief that the university should not withdraw the paper because it can provide insights into research flaws that could be helpful for the future.
Egilman alleged that certain data linking asbestos to cancer was disregarded in the study, which he said altered the results significantly.
“When the data started to show asbestos caused lung cancer rather than protected against lung cancer, [McDonald’s team] stopped,” Egilman said. “If they couldn’t delete the data that didn’t make sense, they just threw it away … This is not arbitrary. This is done with a purpose.”
According to the CBC, McDonald received nearly one million dollars from asbestos companies as funding for his research. CBC released a documentary in February 2012 that argued that asbestos companies influenced McDonald’s results.
Last year, McGill conducted an internal investigation into McDonald’s research. The investigation was led by McGill’s Research Integrity Officer Abraham Fuks, who concluded that no research misconduct had occurred. Some McGill professors defended McDonald’s research when Egilman argued that the results of the research in question may have been manipulated.
“McGill has already investigated itself, and has come up with the final conclusion that there was no evidence of wrong-doing,” Franco said. “This was based on the reality of how you [conducted] research back at that time.”
Wayne Wood, an occupational health lecturer at McGill, also expressed concerns with Egilman’s accusations. He accused Egilman of twisting the words of McDonald’s conclusions.
“I think the presentation is flawed,” Wood said. “I didn’t react with the same amount of outrage as [Egilman] simply because I do not over-interpret the statements as [saying] something that they were not intended to say.”
Wood pointed to Egilman’s accusation that McDonald had said there was a “protection factor” with asbestos exposure.
“[McDonald] didn’t say there is a protection factor,” Wood said. “He said ‘taken at face value’—in other words, if you didn’t know better and you just looked at the data, it might suggest there is a protection factor. But he didn’t say there was a protection factor. You did.”
Egilman said he was pleased with the debates that occurred during his presentation following the talk. He also said it has been difficult getting his message through to members of the McGill community.
“I think it’s hard to call the emperor out,” Egilman said, in reference to McDonald. “I’m not going after McDonald. I am trying to get the truth out about a study in a way that … will make sense.”
Egilman paid for a room in the Faculty Club himself in order to speak. Six scientists from both the United States and Canada sent a letter to Joseph Cox, the coordinator the Epidemiology Seminar Series, requesting that Egilman be given time to present alongside Case. The request was not granted.