The ongoing debate over McGill’s role in producing flawed, industry-funded asbestos research erupted in a shouting match between McGill faculty and an American researcher at the Faculty Club on Monday.
The dispute centered on the research of retired McGill professor J. Corbett MacDonald, conducted with nearly a million dollars from the asbestos industry, about the health effects of asbestos extraction in Quebec. A CBC documentary last year suggested that MacDonald tailored his results to suit industry interests. In a landmark paper published in 1998 after decades of research, MacDonald concluded that the kind of asbestos primarily mined in Quebec – chrysotile – was “innocuous” at certain exposure levels.
Under the chandeliers of the Faculty Club’s Gold Room, Brown University associate professor David Egilman called on McGill to retract MacDonald’s paper. Egilman, who booked the room himself, called MacDonald’s paper “garbage” and said it used outdated measurement methods and relied on manipulated data.
Egilman also objected to the fact that data on the location of mines containing differing levels of tremolite – a form of asbestos universally recognized to cause cancer of the lung lining – in the Thetford Mines area has not been made public. MacDonald’s conclusions about chrysotile hinge on the existence of these high- and low-density tremolite mines.
Egilman has been attacking McGill’s asbestos research for over a decade; in 2003 he wrote a long study, “Exposing the ‘Myth’ of ABC, ‘Anything But Chrysotile’: A critique of the Canadian asbestos mining industry and McGill University chrysotile studies.”
Egilman noted that MacDonald’s paper is being used by the asbestos industry in Brazil and Canada to downplay the health effects of chrysotile exposure.
“I’m not here because I care that he cheated on his research. I’m here because the research is being used in a way that is counterproductive from a health perspective,” Egilman said. “If McGill withdraws the paper, it’s over. It’s over.”
The Harper government has cited MacDonald’s research to oppose the inclusion of chrysotile in the Rotterdam Convention, the UN’s treaty on dangerous substances. The government abandoned the position last September.
Based on MacDonald’s research, the official position of the Brazilian government has long been that the controlled use of chrysotile is safe.
Last semester, an internal investigation conducted by McGill’s own Research Integrity Officer Abraham Fuks cleared MacDonald of any research misconduct. Egilman has called the review “a shameful cover-up.”
During his presentation, Egilman referred to Fuks as Inspector Fox and included a cartoon in his slideshow of a henhouse guarded by a grinning fox.
“Fuks, by the way, is German for Fox,” Egilman said.
“I extremely resent that,” said Eduardo Franco, Interim Chair of Oncolgy at McGill, interrupting. “Dr. Fuks is one of the most distinguished scientists we have at McGill. You could have made your point without that.”
“I could have, but it’s funny,” said Egilman.
Wayne Wood, an Occupational Health lecturer at McGill, also called Egilman’s presentation “flawed” and “dishonest” in an emotional exchange during the question period. He said Egilman should not have attributed the view that chrysotile was “safe” to MacDonald, as MacDonald did not use the word himself.
Egilman’s talk was in response to a lecture earlier that afternoon by Bruce Case, an asbestos researcher at McGill currently on sabbatical. A long time colleague and backer of MacDonald, Case defended the reputations of several asbestos researchers he feels have been unfairly maligned, MacDonald among them. Case called on the audience to “remember them as the not-always-perfect heroes they are” for pioneering the study of asbestos’s health effects.
At the end of Case’s presentation, held at Purvis Hall, Egilman stood up at the back of the room and invited the audience to his talk.
Egilman and Case have a long history of sparring over asbestos research. In 2005, while Case gave a deposition in Dallas, Texas as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in a case about chrysotile exposure – arguing that chrysotile had not been proven to cause mesothelioma, a cancer usually associated with asbestos exposure – Egilman entered the courtroom wearing a “flamboyant” orange t-shirt bearing a moose and a McGill “M,” according to court documents. One of the defendants’ lawyers accused Egilman of trying to “provoke” Case.
In last year’s CBC documentary about McGill’s asbestos studies, Case said, “I wouldn’t give Dr. Egilman the time of day…because he’s not an honourable person.”
Six scientists who signed a letter to McGill in December requesting that Egilman be invited to speak alongside Case cited Case’s attacks in the CBC documentary as a reason for their “concerns” with the McGill scientist’s lecture.
Egilman called on the press to weigh his claims against those of MacDonald’s defenders, such as Case and Fuks. “One of us is an asshole,” he said.