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McGill Reviews Research After Questions Raised About Links to Asbestos Industry

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The dean of Medicine at McGill University said in a statement Thursday that the prestigious Canadian research university will conduct a preliminary inquiry into accusations that a McGill researcher had allowed his research to be influenced by the asbestos industry. Canada remains one of the world’s leading producers of asbestos, a mineral fiber that causes serious respiratory diseases including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen.

Dr. David Eidelman, vice principal of health affairs and dean of medicine at McGill, said a review was being undertaken to ensure that the research of Prof. J. Corbett McDonald, who is now retired, was conducted according to rigorous scientific standards. “The allegations in the media … are very serious and must be address,” Eidelman said in the statement.

A documentary last week on the CBC, Canada’s national public television and radio network, outlined how an institute established by the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association paid McGill Prof. Corbett McDonald and other researchers at least $1 million between 1966 and 1972 for research on the health effects of chrysotile asbestos. In the documentary, Professor David Eidelman of Brown University, claimed that some of the researchers altered the literature to minimize or misrepresent the health effects of chrysotile asbestos. The documentary suggested the research was still being cited by the asbestos industry and Canadian government to support Canada’s continued involvement in asbestos mining.

According to McGill University, Prof. Corbett McDonald and colleagues began in 1966 to investigate the mortality rates of approximately 11,000 Quebec miners and millers of chrysotile, a type of asbestos fiber. Asbestos exposure remains an occupational hazard for many workers. The researchers published their findings in articles in peer reviewed scientific journals from 1971 to 1998. The researchers acknowledged in the journal articles that the research was funded in part by the Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association.

In the research, McDonald demonstrated that asbestos is a carcinogen linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma. But the research also suggested that the health risks of chrysotile asbestos could be greatly minimized by reducing exposure and that chrysotile asbestos —the type of asbestos mined in Canada—was significantly safer than other types of asbestos.

Eidelman said it is true that Prof. McDonald drew different conclusions about the possible safe use of chrysotile asbestos than most scientists do today. “Holding scientific views that are different from those of the majority does not constitute research misconduct,” Eidelman said.

Eidelman said the outcome of the preliminary review conducted by a Canada Research Chair would determine whether there is a need for further investigation.

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