Asbestos: A Failure of Ethics by McGill University

Sat, Oct 5, 2013


Kathleen Ruff,

On October 1, 2013, McGill University held a conference on asbestos, industry funded research and ethics. The conference was in response to complaints made to McGill regarding improprieties in the research, financed by the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association, that was carried out in the past on Quebec asbestos miners by Prof. J.C. McDonald, a past chair of McGill’s Department of Epidemiology.

Prof. David Egilman and other scientists asked McGill to carry out an official investigation under the university’s research integrity regulations. McGill instead carried out an internal review and consultation, which were flawed by bias, lack of transparency and misinformation.  McGill dismissed the complaints and instead held a one-day conference.

Prof. McDonald claimed that his research on Quebec asbestos miners showed that chrysotile asbestos is essentially “innocuous”. He intervened in national and international public policy hearings to oppose safety controls and bans on chrysotile asbestos, but did not disclose that his research had been financed by the asbestos industry. In fact, when testifying before a US legislative body (OSHA), Prof. McDonald categorically stated: “I do not work, nor am I associated with any asbestos producer or manufacturer”, while he was, in fact, at the time receiving financing from and working with the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association.

In his internal review of the complaints regarding Prof. McDonald’s research and use of his research, McGill’s research integrity officer, Dr. A. Fuks, found nothing inappropriate in this conduct and in his report recommending dismissing the complaints, he omitted the evidence that had been submitted to him regarding Prof. McDonald’s denial of any connection with the asbestos industry that was financing his research.

In fact, in his report, Dr. Fuks incorrectly states that Prof. McDonald disclosed his connection to the industry “in the non-scientific record”. This is a serious and disturbing piece of misinformation to put in a McGill ethics report. It does not seem intellectually or ethically acceptable to make a false statement in an official ethics report and omit the evidence that shows that the statement is false.

No-one can possibly say that the OSHA regulatory hearings were unimportant. They were part of a critical legislative process, which was intended to protect the public good, not vested interests. They had a direct impact on the health and well-being of millions of people. The asbestos industry’s records show how it congratulated itself on its successful lobbying tactics to defeat the stricter health regulations that the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health had sought.

Prof. McDonald’s conduct appears to contravene McGill’s Conflict of Interest Guidelines. These guidelines have, however, been treated as non-existent by McGill. Throughout the twenty months that McGill has spent reviewing the complaints, the Conflict of Interest Guidelines have never been mentioned, nor are they mentioned in Dr. Fuks’ report, even though the complaint he was responsible for reviewing raised this exact issue of financial conflict of interest.

It seems that these Conflict of Interest Guidelines are not intended to be taken seriously by McGill.

No other scientist, except those funded by the asbestos industry, has replicated Prof. McDonald’s findings that exposure to high levels of chrysotile asbestos causes no harm to health. The data on which Prof. McDonald based his conclusions has never been produced.

Prof. McDonald’s research continues to be used by the asbestos industry today to promote the sale of chrysotile asbestos. It was used, for example, by the global asbestos lobby organisation (the International Chrysotile Association) at the May 2013 Rotterdam Convention conference in Geneva in order to help defeat the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance.

Scientific improprieties in the asbestos industry funded research of McGill professor

At the McGill asbestos conference, Prof. David Egilman presented a powerful, detailed and damning scientific analysis of improprieties in Prof.  McDonald’s research on the Quebec asbestos miners. You can read Prof. Egilman’s presentation here: The Past is Prologue, Universities in Service to Corporations: The McGill-QAMA Asbestos Example

Other presentations are available on the McGill conference website.

No answers were given at the conference to the serious questions put forward by Prof. Egilman and myself.

Below is the presentation I made A Failure of Ethics by McGill University.

Click here, or on the image below to view the presentation.




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