Asbestos at McGill: one year later

by Andra Cernavskis

Feb 26, 2013

Black Lake Mine (Laurence Butet Roch)
Black Lake Mine (Laurence Butet Roch)

As a large research university, McGill is one of the world’s leading institutions when it comes to scientific breakthroughs. With this title, however, comes great responsibility and a stringent public eye. 

In the past few years, McGill has received internal and external criticism on some of the research projects conducted within the Roddick gates, including military and pharmceutical research. 

But what happens when research that was conducted 40 years ago comes into question? That is exactly what has happened with John Corbett McDonald— former McGill professor of oncology—and his research on chrysotile asbestos.  This month marks one year since the release of CBC reporter Terrence McKenna’s provocative documentary on asbestos research at McGill. The Tribune has set out to recapitulate the controversy surrounding this research over the past year, and to look forward to the year ahead.

A story 40 years in the making

Chrysotile asbestos is the most commonly used form of asbestos. It was popularly employed as insulation between the 1950s and 1970s in countries around the world, including Canada. Historically, Quebec has been one of the major exporters of asbestos, with the largest asbestos mine in the world residing in the namesake town of Asbestos, Quebec.

The mineral is now widely recognized as a cancer causing agent—it is most known to cause mesothelioma, a cancer that commonly develops in the lungs—prompting over 40 countries to ban its use.

The CBC reported that in the late 1960s, the asbestos industry hired McDonald, at the time a professor in the oncology department at McGill, to conduct research into the health effects of asbestos. This is according to David Egilman, a clinical professor in the department of family medicine at Brown University, and a long-time critic of the use of asbestos.

McDonald’s study focused on the health of 11,000 asbestos miners and mill workers in Quebec, and it took place over the course of approximately 30 years. As late as 1998, McDonald co-wrote a paper with F.D. Liddell—a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics—based on these studies, which concluded that, at face value, the data proved that asbestos had a protective effect on workers’ health at a certain level of exposure.

The Internal Investigation

McDonald’s studies and conclusions on asbestos have raised two important debates within McGill and the wider scientific community in the past year. The first debate began after McKenna released a documentary on the CBC show The National on Feb. 2, 2012. The documentary accused McDonald of tailoring his results to comply with what was in the best interest of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA)—an asbestos company that gave one million dollars to fund McDonald’s research.

Following the release of McKenna’s documentary, McGill authorized an internal investigation to conclude whether or not these allegations of research misconduct were founded.

David Eidelman, vice principal (health affairs) and dean of medicine, initially asked professor and chair of the department of epidemiology, biostatistics, and occupational health Rebecca Fuhrer to do a preliminary review of the research material to determine whether or not an internal investigation needed to be held. According to Eidelman, there was no obvious reason based on the preliminary review on which to conduct an official investigation. He said, though, that there was enough uncertainty that he felt compelled to formally commission  McGill’s Research Integrity Officer (RIO) Abraham Fuks to conduct the internal investigation on McDonald’s research in April 2012.

“I think our process is very strong,” Eidelman said. “We have to have an internal process that is reliable and robust because we don’t just react when something is on TV. We hear about things before, and we have to be able to deal with them. The research in this university would be worthless if we couldn’t be sure it was carefully overseen.”

On Oct. 17, 2012, Eidelman announced that McGill had cleared McDonald of all charges, after receiving a 17-page report written by Fuks, which found no evidence of research misconduct.

“After we [announced] this … and shared the report, the people on campus were largely supportive of the way we did things, and I got really positive comments,” Eidelman said.

No external review into McDonald’s research was conducted. Eidelman stated that an external review is not something McGill requires when the university has been accused of research misconduct. He also pointed to the high costs of holding an external review.

The anti-asbestos lobby, however, has criticized McGill’s choice to conduct an internal investigation. Critics maintain that the internal investigation was self-serving on the part of the university, and that McGill continues to cover-up what it sees as research misconduct.

“I think they have done it because [their number one priority is] to protect McGill, to do public relations for McGill, and to cover the whole issue up,” said Kathleen Ruff, a senior advisor to the Rideau Institute—a Canadian non-profit organization that focuses on research and advocacy. “You can indeed do that when you have power and privilege, but not forever.”

Support from McGill faculty for both McDonald’s research and the internal review became apparent when David Egilman came to speak to the McGill community this January. He continued to argue that McDonald conducted malpractice in his research.

All the McGill professors who attended and participated in Egilman’s discussion defended McDonald’s 1998 paper after Egilman accused McDonald of research misconduct and called for the paper to be retracted. One of these professors was Eduardo Franco, the interim chair of McGill’s department of oncology.

“It seems to me [that there is] a festival of misinterpretation out there by the activists,” Franco told the Tribune. “Nobody is saying, not even the authors of that paper, that chrysotile asbestos is not hazardous.”

Franco said, instead, that McDonald derived his conclusions by comparing people who were heavily exposed and those who were only moderately exposed.

“At the end, they are being accused of having published a paper that indicated a protective effect,” he continued. “It’s not protective. It’s just in relative terms. If you are extremely exposed to asbestos, you are going to have a higher risk value than someone who is moderately exposed, and that may just be the semantics of the game.”

Both Franco and Eidelman addressed the issue of investigating research that was conducted 30 or 40 years ago.

One of the accusations against McDonald’s papers was that he did not properly disclose the source of his his funding. Franco pointed to the changes that have occurred in policies about disclosing conflicts of interest in published papers. He maintains that this is a recent practice that has only developed in the last three or four years.

“If this paper were published today, it would have of course included a conflict of interest statement,” Franco said. “So what Dr. Egilman is wrong in doing is trying to use a collective witch hunt to use the objects of today to condemn a study from 1998. This is completely wrong and unfair.”

Eidelman, too, pointed out that the rules of the game have changed in general since McDonald carried out his research.

“One of the issues is, of course, with rules that were in place, let’s say, in 1975, [they] are much less clear than the rules that are in place now,” he said. “That’s one of the things that makes that [internal investigation] different.”

“In the case of Dr. McDonald … as far as we are concerned, we’ve looked into it from a research misconduct point of view, and that issue is closed,” Eidelman continued. “From the point of view of what Dr. McDonald may or may not have said or what things he promoted or didn’t promote … the record is there for people to read for themselves and draw their own conclusion.”

Current implications and the anti-asbestos lobby

McDonald’s research provoked a second debate, which is now occurring around what McGill should do with McDonald’s papers—particularly, the one he co-wrote with Liddell in 1998.

Members of the anti-asbestos lobby, including Egilman and Ruff, have called on McGill to retract McDonald and Liddell’s paper.

According to the anti-asbestos lobby, McDonald’s research is still used today by asbestos companies to advocate for the use of asbestos in developing countries like Brazil and India, where asbestos continues to be used in construction. It is the anti-asbestos lobby’s mission to discontinue the use of asbestos around the world.

“McGill’s research done by McDonald still is one of the most important weapons used by the asbestos industry around the world to defeat efforts by health professionals to ban asbestos,” Ruff said.

According to Egilman and Ruff, in order for this paper to no longer be used in the defense of asbestos, the paper needs to be retracted. Egilman said that when he went to Science—the journal that originally published the paper—to ask for a retraction, the editors directed him to McGill, claiming this was a decision to be made by the university where the research took place.

McGill has not retracted the paper or indicated that retraction has been officially considered at all.

Franco believes there are no grounds for retraction because  Fuks’ internal investigation found that there was no research misconduct.

In an interview with the Tribune, Eidelman did not address the issue of retraction directly, saying that he would not comment on what Egilman has said on the topic.

“But I will say this: sometimes people confuse the issue of research misconduct,” Eidelman said. [Research misconduct] is … not presenting data fairly, not admitting … you took money from a company and then pretending you didn’t,” Eidelman said, implying that McDonald hadn’t done this. “And then [there is] deriving conclusions from data … that maybe aren’t the best conclusions.”

What’s next? The Asbestos Conference

Following the presentation of Fuks’ report to Senate last October, McGill announced that it will hold a conference on asbestos research, now slated to happen next September, as a follow-up on the internal investigations and reports.

The Faculty of Medicine, which is sponsoring the symposium, has tasked Eidelman with assembling a committee of both faculty and students to plan this conference. This committee first met on Jan. 14.

Eidelman explained that the first meeting was delayed in order to make sure that representatives from four student associations could participate. The student associations represeted are the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS), and the Medical Students’ Society (MSS). He also noted that having the conference in the fall gives the committee a chance to invite international authorities on the topic of asbestos to attend and that these people need months of notice before traveling to Montreal.

Eidelman said that the conference will take place over the course of a single day.

“All we can really do is a one-day symposium,” he said. “A couple of professors complained that you couldn’t do a proper job unless you had, like, three days.”

Eidelman explained that while the issue of asbestos is complex, the conference will not exclusively focus on the science  behind asbestos. Therefore, the  topics the committee would like to see discussed only require one day, according to  Eidelman.

“We will concentrate on two major issues.,” he said. “The morning will be given over to discussing asbestos, with a focus on the science.  We hope to address issues like what exactly is ‘asbestos,’ which turns out to be more complicated than it seems at first.”

He said the afternoon’s discussions will examine the university’s relationship with industry in general.

He also noted that students and professors alike will co-lead the conference. He expressed hope that students will play a leading role in all sessions that take place that day.

“We are trying to be forward-looking and make things better,” he said.

Eidelman said that the conference will be open to the public, and that the committee would like to bring in people from all sides of the debate to present their views—including those from the anti-asbestos lobby.

“Our goal is not to prove whether or not Dr. Egilman and his friends are right or wrong,” he said. “They cannot only speak for themselves, they speak very well for themselves, and they can defend their point of view. My goal and our goal here is to make sure that at McGill, we are giving a full and open discussion of the material, so people can interpret the information for themselves and come to their own conclusions.”

Ruff expressed skepticism over the idea of an asbestos symposium at McGill.

“I have nothing against conferences, but I think [the conference] really avoids the issue … that McGill has carried out a whitewash, and that the report by the Research Integrity Officer is completely full of incorrect information,” Ruff said. “The whole process has been unethical and biased.”

She pointed to how the internal report notes that McDonald did not attempt to hide his connection to the asbestos industry. She disputes this. According to Ruff, McDonald did conceal this link. When testifying at hearings in the U.S. over the issue of raising standards to protect workers, McDonald said he had no connection to the industry.

“This is a mark on McGill that will not go away until they address it in a clean, honest way,” Ruff continued.

  • lotswifemcgill

    “In the past few years,
    McGill has received internal and external criticism on some of the
    research projects conducted within the Roddick gates, including military
    and pharmceutical research.”

    Scene: Roddick Gates

    McGill Security Guard: “Excuse me do you mind if I ask what you’re doing?”

    Scientist in White Coat: “We are conducting some very important military and pharmaceutical and military research projects.”

    MSG: “Yes that appears to be the case, but why exactly are you doing in within the Roddick Gates?”

    SiWC: [adjusting his bunsen burner while avoiding a snow plow] “Can’t you see I’m very busy here? This is some of the most important research being conducted at McGill, and I can’t have you distracting me.”

    MSG: “I believe McGill has labs for this, no? I mean it must be very difficult to conduct important research out here in the Roddick Gates? You must be cold.”

    SiWC: [after a long pause] “I have not heard of these labs…”

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