Debate on asbestos marks Senate session

By McGill Reporter Staff

The Senate’s Feb. 15 meeting was marked by a vigorous debate over a motion urging University officials to issue a public statement clarifying McGill’s position on asbestos research.

While the resolution was ultimately tabled, pending the outcome of a preliminary review of the research, the animated debate underscored a dilemma raised by the issue: several senators argued that it was important to take a stance in order to defend the University’s reputation and address an important public-health issue, while others worried that an official University position on any scientific issue would undercut academic freedom.

The debate followed recent allegations in the media that retired Emeritus Professor, J. Corbett McDonald, may have allowed his research to be influenced by the asbestos industry. Those allegations prompted the Faculty of Medicine last week to launch a preliminary review of McDonald’s work.

In a Feb. 9 message to the McGill community, Dean of Medicine David Eidelman said Rebecca Fuhrer, Chair of the Dept. of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, was undertaking a review “to ensure that the research of Prof. McDonald was conducted according to the rigorous scientific standards for which McGill is known.” The outcome of the review will determine whether a more detailed investigation is needed.

 Chrysotile mortality rates

Starting in 1966, McDonald and colleagues began an epidemiological study investigating the mortality rates of about 11,000 Quebec miners and millers of chrysotile, a type of asbestos fibre. They published the findings in a series of research articles in international peer-reviewed journals from 1971 to 1998. The research was funded in part by the Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association, “a fact that Prof. McDonald acknowledged clearly in peer-reviewed published journal articles,” Eidelman said.

A recent CBC documentary stated that McDonald’s “scientific studies suggested other possible culprits for the cancer being found in the asbestos workers in Quebec.”

In his message, Eidelman noted that “McDonald suggested that the health risks of chrysotile asbestos could be greatly minimized through lessening exposure, and that chrysotile was significantly safer than other types of asbestos fibres. Nonetheless, his published work also demonstrates a clear link between higher rates of mortality and the exposure to asbestos that the 11,000 men received during the course of their employment. Thus, Prof. McDonald’s work demonstrated that asbestos, including chrysotile asbestos, is a carcinogen associated with both lung cancer and mesothelioma.”

The Senate debate involved a resolution, proposed by Prof. Edith Zorychta, of the Faculty of Medicine, and Law Prof. Richard Janda, to “strongly encourage University officials to issue a public statement clarifying McGill’s position on asbestos research, which indicates that: a) none of the research on asbestos at McGill refutes the international scientific consensus that chrysotile can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis; and b) McGill research does not document that chrysotile use is safe in other countries.

In presenting the resolution, Zorychta said the public accusations concerning asbestos research at McGill have been disturbing to members of the University community. A concise, factual statement by University officials on the matter could help “put to rest some misconceptions” stemming from media coverage, she argued.

 Motion tabled

Eidelman said that while he was sympathetic to the intent of the motion, he had concerns about the University taking a position on social issues; instead, he suggested, professors and students should be the ones to present and defend opinions, backing them up with the highest-quality data.

Dean of Law Daniel Jutras echoed Eidelman’s concern, saying that it touched on the issue of academic freedom. Others said they didn’t have the scientific expertise to weigh in on the specifics of the controversy.

Janda, for his part, argued that McGill’s good name is being used by government and chrysotile-industry officials to promote their interests – and that the University has a responsibility as a public institution to protect public health.

Senators ultimately agreed to table the motion until Dean Eidelman makes known the outcome of the preliminary review.