In response to McGill’s controversial history with the asbestos industry, the McGill Faculty of Medicine held a public conference on the topic of asbestos and research integrity at the Faculty Club on October 1. Two guest speakers, Dr. David Egilman of Brown University, and Kathleen Ruff of the Rideau Institute, focused on their past and present criticism on the asbestos research of former McGill professor John Corbett McDonald in the 1960s and 1970s. The speakers proposed that the University take future action with respect to meeting its intellectual and ethical standards in research.
The two spoke in the second half of the afternoon, beginning with Egilman. His presentation largely consisted of a scientific critique of McDonald’s research. However, he added, “I am not here to question the motives of the scientists.”
After reading through a quote in which McDonald openly admitted in 1998 to “a degree of arbitrariness in some of the pooling carried out,” Egilman argued that the conclusion of the research was founded on data manipulation. “They threw data out because it gave them wrong results,” he said.
According to the speakers, asbestos mining and manufacturing companies today continue to justify the promotion of chrysotile asbestos in developing countries using McDonald’s asbestos research.
Later, Ruff explained the origin of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association’s (QAMA) reasoning in funding and using McDonald’s research on the so-called innocuousness of asbestos.
“[In the 1980s] asbestos sales plummeted, and the industry thought it would die, but Professor McDonald helped them save the day by coming in with his message arguing that it can be safely used in controlled circumstances,” she said. “So the industry went on a mission to developing countries to get them to use chrysotile asbestos.”
Egilman and a number of scientists worldwide had filed complaints with McGill in 2002 and 2012, both of which claimed inaccuracies in McDonald’s research and a need for the University to pursue “independent, transparent and thorough” investigation of these criticisms.
In February 2012, the University began a departmental review that would assess the integrity of McDonald’s research and work under McGill’s scientific standards.
Soon after the review, which found no evidence of research misconduct, McGill’s Research Integrity Officer issued a consultation report in September 2012, which, Ruff alleged, was fatally flawed.
She also emphasized one of the report’s flawed statements concerning the so-called “international consensus” of McDonald’s findings.
“Not a single reputable scientific organization in the world supports Professor McDonald’s findings that chrysotile asbestos is virtually innocuous,” she said. “The consensus is overwhelming in the world, in the scientific community. Chrysotile asbestos, all forms of asbestos, are hazardous and should stop.”
McGill’s report also states that the safety of chrysotile asbestos is a highly controversial and conflicted issue, rather than an established scientific consensus. “It is a disservice, a great disservice, that McGill has been promoting [this message],” Ruff stated.
Egilman and Ruff both stated that McGill should retract McDonald’s study, and that its ultimate aim should be to positively impact the real world with research and scholarship that meets the University’s intellectual and ethical standards.
“This conference is excellent,” said Ruff. “[However], it is not a substitute for doing the right thing.”