McGill under fire for corporate-funded asbestos research

Letter details McGill’s past and present relationship with Quebec asbestos industry

Correction appended Feb. 4

A letter signed by 76 international health experts and academics makes two requests of  McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG): that they cease inviting Roshi Chadha – who is involved in exporting asbestos from Canada – to sit on the BoG, and to cease using and promoting the use of asbestos.

The letter states that McGill “has a long history of serving the interests of the Quebec asbestos industry,” including an “alliance” between the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA) and former McGill professor John Corbett Macdonald in 1966.

According to a recent episode of CBC’s The National, QAMA provided Macdonald at least $1 million between 1966 and 1972 for research into the health effects of chrysotile asbestos.

The letter states that Macdonald “had significant influence around the world in putting forward information…that was favourable to the industry’s interests.”

Bruce Case, a professor in McGill’s Pathology department, co-authored a 2001 study on asbestos fibres in the lungs of miners and millers that was partially funded by the J.M. Asbestos Corporation, according to the documentary.

The CBC documentary claims that the asbestos industry continued to fund research at McGill until recently – research that the federal and Quebec governments have used to justify continued asbestos production and export.

In a statement addressing both the letter and CBC’s documentary, David Eidelman, chair of McGill’s Department of Medicine, said the University “has the highest standards of research ethics.”

“The integrity and scientific value of research carried out at the University is of primary importance.  When concerns are occasionally expressed about research ethics, we rely on a rigorous process of investigation,” continued Eidelman.

The letter to BoG members also criticized the use of asbestos-cement storm pipes in the ongoing construction of the McGill University Health Centre.

“It is particularly cynical that McGill is using asbestos-containing materials in a hospital building,” states the letter, adding, “McGill will serve as a priceless ‘poster child’ for the asbestos industry, whose marketing in developing countries will likely feature McGill’s new state of the art hospital.”

Fernand Turcotte, lead signatory of the letter and professor emeritus of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the Université Laval, said in the letter that “McGill has regrettably chosen to play the role of acting as a business card for the asbestos industry.” The letter notes that much of Chadha’s donations to McGill have “likely come from asbestos profits.”

Chahda announced she was taking a leave of absence from the BoG last Thursday.

Abby Lippman, a McGill professor in Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health and co-signer of the letter, said she was pleased Chadha took a leave of absence.

“I hope she will seriously consider resigning from the Board,” she said.

Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights adviser for the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, also signed the letter.

“I didn’t expect to be fighting McGill. I thought McGill would be on our side,” she said. “I thought McGill would be on the side of knowledge and health, but it isn’t, apparently.”

The letter also referred to Principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s observation of a straw vote by roughly 1,000 epidemiologists at the Third North American Congress of Epidemiology in Montreal last year calling for Canada to cease the use, mining, and export of asbestos, as “quite puzzling,” in light of the University’s history with the industry.

Munroe-Blum is a professor in McGill’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health.

SSMU President Maggie Knight, one of two student representatives on the BoG, voiced concern over the McGill’s potential connections to the asbestos industry.

“Obviously if [the accusations] are fully true, that’s really concerning, and I would hope that the University will take fast action, as we don’t want our academic reputation sullied by such events,” said Knight.


Fast facts: Asbestos

• Popular form of insulation throughout the 1900s

• Inhalation of fibres can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma

• The European Union has banned all use, manufacture and export

• Asbestos is banned from being used in 50 countries around the world

• Commercial mining of asbestos began in the Eastern Townships

• Asbestos, Quebec is home to the world’s largest asbestos mine

In the printed the version of this article it incorrectly states that the letter was addressed to three senior members of McGill’s BoG; in fact the letter was addressed to all members of the BoG. The Daily regrets the error.