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McGill stands by asbestos research

Professor cleared of misconduct despite corporate funding and controversial methods

Dean of Medicine David Eidelman announced yesterday that after an internal review, the University will not be pursuing an independent investigation into allegations of research misconduct made against professor emeritus J. Corbett Macdonald, who conducted asbestos industry-funded research on the health effects of asbestos at McGill in the early 1970s.

The inquiry was launched in February after a CBC documentary revealed that Macdonald had accepted nearly one million dollars from the asbestos industry.

“Professor McDonald [sic]properly acknowledged financial support from the asbestos industry in his publications […] There is no evidence to suggest that the sponsors influenced the data analyses or the conclusions,” read a statement released yesterday by the University.

The report, prepared by McGill Research Integrity Officer Abraham Fuks, claims that Macdonald’s findings were often corroborated by others and that his research demonstrated a link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer.

The work of Brown University professor David Egilman – a vocal critic of Macdonald’s research for over ten years – was cited numerous times in the report.

However, Egilman told The Daily that he was never contacted by the University during the course of its investigation, despite offering to meet with them.

“McGill has its own definition of an investigation,” he said. “You would assume that you would talk to the person who filed the complaint and published a peer-reviewed paper that laid out the issues.”

The report also acknowledges that asbestos companies exploited a distinction made by Macdonald’s research between chrysotile asbestos and other forms of asbestos, particularly his reference to chrysotile as being “essentially innocuous” at certain concentrations.

One of Macdonald’s studies concluded that “most, if not all” cases of mesothelioma were related to exposure to tremolite asbestos and not chrysotile.

The study described certain mines in Quebec as containing higher or lower amounts of tremolite – mines in area A and mines in area B – but MacDonald never refers to these mines by name.

“Their whole theory is based on comparing the mesothelioma rates and they don’t say which mine is which,” Egilman said. “If they didn’t make up the data, they hid information […] That’s worse than scientific misconduct.”

Fuks admits in the report that he could not “find direct identification of which specific mines were in areas A and B and all the published data are coded both for subjects and mine.”

“It is therefore not possible to make these linkages by name,” he concludes.

Despite this, Fuks argues that there is “no basis to presume that the analyses performed by [Macdonald] and his colleagues are flawed” because the data Macdonald used was consistent across his studies.

Egilman claimed in a paper published in 2003 that Macdonald did not use the right equipment to assess the levels of asbestos exposure.

Fuks’ report addressed this by stating that although Macdonald was aware of the drawbacks of his equipment, it was impossible for him to use the latest measuring tools because he was comparing his numbers with data obtained using older instruments.

“[Macdonald] did not have the opportunity to carry out prospective measures of exposure and [was] forced to either use the data available or not initiate the study,” the report read.

Egilman also claimed that the relationship between Macdonald and the asbestos industry was greatly understated.

“[The asbestos industry] said they were looking for Macdonald because they were looking for someone who would want to be a champion for them, like the tobacco companies did with cancer,” he told The Daily.

Macdonald testified before the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1972 and proposed lowering U.S. safety standards, according to a 1973 book by investigative science reporter Paul Brodeur.

Eidelman said at a press conference on Wednesday that MacDonald’s public advocacy of the use of asbestos was not “germane to an issue of research misconduct.”

“We don’t regulate the speech of our professors,” he said.

Earlier this year, a group of Canadian scientists criticized McGill for its continued ties to the asbestos industry and called for the resignation of Roshi Chadha from the University’s Board of Governors.

Chadha is the director of an asbestos-exporting firm and the wife of Baljit Chadha, the president and founder of Balcorp Limited – a prominent exporter of asbestos to India.

Eidelman declined to comment on Chadha’s relationship to McGill.

The report concluded by recommending that McGill hold an academic conference on the topic of alternatives to asbestos and the challenge of asbestos removal.

with files from Lola Duffort