McGill’s intimate ties with the asbestos industry began in 1965, when the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA) sought ties with an academic institution.
The QAMA found its ally in former professor John Corbett McDonald, then an emeritus professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill. That same year, the Association founded and helped establish QAMA’s Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health (IOEH) in Montreal.
McDonald received a large portion of the organization’s money – nearly $1 million from the IOEH over six years during his research.
McDonald, who is now retired, was the author of an epidemiological study on the health of some 11,000 workers born between 1891 and 1920 who worked in the Quebec chrysotile asbestos industry.
Many allege McDonald’s acknowledgments of the presence of industry funding in his publications and presentations were misleading at best, despite claims made to the contrary by McGill.
In one instance, in 1972, McDonald testified before hearings of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in favour of looser asbestos safety regulations. According to the book Expendable Americans, at the hearings, McDonald identified himself as an independent researcher and denied any connection to the asbestos industry.
For more than two decades, ranging from 1971 to 1998, McDonald and his team published a series of articles concluding that the health risks associated with chrysotile asbestos were “essentially innocuous” at certain exposure levels, much lower than those of other asbestos fibres.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), asbestos is primarily used in two forms: chrysotile and amphibole fibers. Chrysotile asbestos, which is the kind primarily mined in Quebec, represents 90 to 95 per cent of the world’s production.
A CBC documentary that aired in February of last year put the issue back at the forefront by claiming that the asbestos industry used its ties with McDonald and McGill to promote its image. In response, in an open letter sent in February 2012 to members of McGill’s Board of Governors, and published in various media outlets, a group of academics and health experts asked McGill to break its ties from the asbestos industry, and called for an independent investigation into McDonald’s research.
Soon thereafter, it was announced that the University would conduct its own internal review. In a report released on October 17, 2012, the University’s Research Integrity Officer (RIO) rejected allegations of collusion and by the same token found no need to launch an independent investigation.
The RIO’s report concluded by recommending that McGill hold an academic conference on the topic of alternatives to asbestos and the challenge of asbestos removal, resulting in this past week’s one day conference, “Asbestos: Dialogue for the Future.”