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Canadian scientists, activists demand independent review of asbestos study

Public-health activists and scientists in Canada are asking McGill University to conduct a "thorough, independent and transparent investigation" of a controversial study on asbestos safety.


Earlier this month, David Egilman, a professor at Brown University, told CBC Television that a 40-year study on the carcinogen by a group of McGill scientists was unduly influenced by the asbestos industry, which commissioned the research in 1966.


The allegations were first aired in a 20-minute CBC documentary on the industry, which is under pressure from heath advocates to stop exporting the mineral to developing countries. The CBC’s report included documentation revealing that, from 1966 to 1972, scientists at the McGill School of Occupational Health had received almost $1 million from a group representing the asbestos mining industry.


Following the CBC report, David Eidelman, the university's dean of medicine, said McGill would carry out an internal review of research led by professor J. Corbett McDonald, Professor Emeritus of McGill’s Department of Epidemiology


But in a February 10 letter to Eidelman, 20 activists and scientists criticized the university’s response, saying that the appointment of Rebecca Fuhrer, a colleague of McDonald’s, to lead the review was inappropriate.


The letter accuses McDonald of using his research and McGill affiliation to give “critical political support” to the asbestos industry. The scientists said McDonald has testified against asbestos bans in other countries, and that he told the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration that exposure to small amounts of asbestos was safe.


The letter asked the university to “carry out a thorough, independent and transparent investigation of the allegation that the Quebec asbestos industry had improper influence over the epidemiological research carried out by Prof. J. C. McDonald and his unit at McGill; that the research is flawed, lacks transparency and contains manipulated data; that requests for the study data to be released have been refused; that the research minimalized the threat to health posed by chrysotile asbestos; and that Prof. McDonald and others at times denied that the asbestos industry was funding the research.”


The CBS reported that the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association — now known as the Chrysotile Institute — had sought to fund studies that would counter the growing body of evidence that showed asbestos caused mesothelioma and other cancers in miners. Documents show that the association, composed of mining company executives, accepted an offer by McDonald to study 11,000 Quebec miners and millers of chrysotile, an asbestos fiber. The research would be modeled on studies being done at the time by the tobacco industry.


Egilman told the CBC, “They seemed to feel confident that [McDonald] was someone they could rely on to be their champion, just as the tobacco companies had champions.”


McDonald and his research team published a series of studies between 1971 and 1998. One paper, published in 1997 study, suggested that chrysotile was "essentially innocuous," and that cases of mesothelioma occurred in "most, if not all," miners who had a greater exposure to tremolite, a more dangerous form of asbestos that is sometimes found alongside chrysotile.


Egilman has asked McGill to release the data McDonald used. Richard Lemen, a former assistant surgeon general in the U.S., said he would also like to see the information. Lemen told the CBC that the researchers are "either hiding something or … afraid the results will be interpreted differently."


Asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries, including all nations of the European Union. The substance is severely restricted in Canada and the United States, but is still commonly used in developing countries. Both the World Health Organization, which estimates that more than 107,000 people die annually from asbestos exposure worldwide, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warn that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Topics: Medical