Investigation finds no misconduct in McGill asbestos study

Internal report by McGill’s Research Integrity Officer discourages additional independent investigation

by Carolina Millán Ronchetti

Oct 23, 2012

An internal investigation found no proof of misconduct on the disputed research of former epidemiology professor John Corbett McDonald.

McDonald’s research on the health effects of chrysotile asbestos  came under scrutiny in early February following a CBC documentary which suggested that  McGill had allowed the asbestos industry to sponsor and influence scientific studies.

The controversy led Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of Medicine David Eidelman to request a preliminary internal review by the chair of the department of epidemiology, Rebecca Fuhrer, despite calls from anti-asbestos activists to organize an independent investigation. On April 4, Eidelman announced that Fuhrer had not found any evidence of research misconduct, and requested that McGill’s Research Integrity Officer Abraham Fuks conduct an additional investigation on the integrity of McDonald’s research.

“The financial support from the industry was acknowledged in publications and there is no evidence to suggest that the sponsors influenced the data analyses or the conclusions,” Fuks’ report reads. “I find no warrant to initiate further investigations of the allegations that we have received.”

Eidelman presented the report to Senate, the highest academic body in the university, on Oct. 17.

“[The report] casts a lot of light … [and] allows one to understand why people may make allegations,” Eidelman said. “I don’t believe we have anything to hide. We have no investments in the asbestos industry … [the] conspiracy is simply not true.”

The report notes that although McDonald received funding from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA), his research was also funded through the federal Department of Health and Welfare.

“It is clear QAMA’s interests were designed to protect the asbestos industry with the implication that if it funded the research, it would thereby control the outcomes or their dissemination,” the report reads. “[However], this does not by itself demonstrate that the research was controlled or that its dissemination was influenced by QAMA.”

Further allegations claimed that McDonald had denied his connection to the asbestos industry. Fuks argues that McDonald did not make an attempt to hide that the funding for his research came from asbestos companies, and that “there is no evidence that the design of the research, its conduct, and its reporting was influenced by the industry.”

Kathleen Ruff, anti-asbestos activist and recipient of the Canadian Public Health Association’s 2011 National Public Health Hero award, called the report “biased, misleading, and inaccurate.” The report mentions her among those who provided materials to the investigation, such as newspaper clippings and other documentation.

“I provided evidence to Dr. Fuks, showing that Prof. McDonald used his research to lobby against improved occupational safety standards for asbestos workers,” Ruff told the Tribune. “Dr. Fuks ignored this evidence of collusion with the asbestos industry … legitimate concerns were ignored, and critical information was excluded from the report. No meaningful involvement was allowed.”

The report noted that McDonald has been criticized for studies that found that amphibole asbestos is more closely associated with mesothelioma, or malignant tumours, than chrysotile asbestos.

“Some of the controversies in this contested field stem from the choice of language to describe the data derived from the research,” the report reads. “In fact, the statements by [McDonald] and colleagues were generally carefully worded and explicitly supported by their research findings.”

Ruff disputed the claim in Fuks’ report that McDonald’s findings have been corroborated and supported by the scientific community.

“The key conclusion of Prof. McDonald’s research is that chrysotile asbestos is virtually innocuous except at astronomically high exposure levels,” she said. “This conclusion is rejected by the overwhelming consensus of scientists. There is, to my knowledge, not a single reputable, independent scientist who has replicated this finding.”

Among the criticisms the report addresses is those by Brown University professor David Egilman, who questioned McDonald’s methodology and suggested that the his research methods were flawed. According to the report, McDonald used older methods to contrast data from previous decades, as there was no data to compare to if he used newer techniques. Fuks writes that McDonald “understood the drawback [of using older methods] and assessed [the] data accordingly. ”

Ruff noted that McDonald testified before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1972 against a proposal to increase US safety regulations regarding asbestos and that in 1999, he spoke at a conference in Brazil, organized by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, allegedly presenting findings that chrysotile asbestos could be eliminated by the body except at extremely high levels of exposure.

Fuks declined to comment on the report.

The report recommends that McGill’s Board of Governors consider avoiding investing in asbestos companies, and that McGill host an academic conference on the current evidence on the toxicity of asbestos, and the burden of dealing with asbestos in old buildings.

During Senate, Eidelman welcomed the suggestion to host a conference, and said that he aimed to organize one in the near future. Other professors, like Associate Professor of Political Science Catherine Lu, expressed interest in the suggestion.

“The Report raises some questions,” Lu said. “In terms of the conference proposed, do we need to think of a conference that also discusses the relationship between universities and industries with an agenda?”

The report does not mention that in early February, over 70 medical doctors and health researchers called for the resignation of asbestos exporter and member of the McGill Board of Governors Roshi Chadha. Chadha took a leave of absence for the remainder of the winter semester and resigned from the Board early in the summer.

—Additional reporting by Bea Britneff. 

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