McGill asbestos study flawed, epidemiologist says

An asbestos expert says a major study done by a group of scientists at McGill University is flawed, but is still being used to promote the export of asbestos overseas.

Government plans to approve asbestos sales to developing world

The Jeffrey asbestos mine, where production has stopped, on Oct. 7, 2011 in Asbestos, Que. The mine could reopen with a loan guarantee from the Quebec government. (Jacques Boissinot/ The Canadian Press)

A major 40-year study on asbestos safety completed by a group of scientists at McGill University is flawed, lacks transparency and contains manipulated data says Dr. David Egilman, a professor at Brown University, health activist and longtime industry critic.

The study, which followed the health of 11,000 miners and mill workers in Quebec between 1966 and the late 1990s, is used by the Chrysotile Institute — a lobby arm funded by, overseen and closely associated with both Liberal and Conservative governments — to promote the use of asbestos overseas.

Chrysotile Institute

The Quebec Asbestos Mining Association, which later changed its name to The Asbestos Institute and then to the Chrysotile Institute, received approximately $20M in direct funding from the Canadian government since the 1980s.

According to Egilman, as the dangers of asbestos became better known in the 1960s, the industry decided to do its own research and hired Dr. John Corbett McDonald at McGill University's School of Occupational Health. Industry documents obtained by CBC News showed it wanted to conduct research similar to that in the tobacco industry, which stated that "Industry is always well advised to look after its own problems."

Dr. David Egliman visits Thetford Mines, Que., on Oct. 22, 2011. (Alex Shprintsen/CBC)

"Doubt is their product. They just need to have a little doubt in the dialogue. OK? And doubt allows you to go in and say, OK, maybe they’re right, maybe we’re right, but nobody’s sure," says Egilman, who has been investigating the dangers of asbestos for over two decades.

Starting in the mid-1960s, McDonald headed the McGill study. The CBC has documents that show payments from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association to McDonald and other researchers at the McGill School of Occupational Health totalling almost a million dollars from 1966 to 1972. 

Tremolite versus asbestos

Tremolite, an even more dangerous contaminant than chrysotile, is sometimes found alongside white asbestos or chrysotile. 

The McGill researchers would suggest in a 1997 study that cases of mesothelioma — cancer of the lining of the lung — occurred in "most, if not all," miners who had a greater exposure to tremolite and that the mines close to the centre of the town of Thetford, Que., were the ones most contaminated with tremolite.

Dr. John Corbett MacDonald was a scientist at McGill University who offered to conduct research for the asbestos industry. (McGill University Archives)

McDonald suggested that chrysotile was "essentially innocuous" at certain levels and advocated for its export to the Third World.

Egilman, who has been a longtime critic of the study, argues that chrysotile causes mesothelioma and has called for the release of the McGill study data.

"The whole argument is based on contaminated and uncontaminated mines. And nobody knows which is which? That’s crazy," says Egilman.

Asbestos shipped across Canada

Asbestos was shipped all over Canada where it was used in many different industries. Forty per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry is in Sarnia, Ont., and the pipes in the plants were wrapped in asbestos insulation. The overall cancer rate in the Sarnia area from 2003 to 2007 was about 10 per cent higher than the provincial average, the lung cancer rate 21 per cent higher and the mesothelioma rate six times higher. In Canada, there were 404 deaths in 2008 from mesothelioma.

Egilman is not the only expert asking to see the McGill University study data.

John Dement, an asbestos specialist at Duke University and Dr. Richard Lemen, a former assistant surgeon general in the U.S., both told CBC News that they would also like to see the information. 

Lemen said the researchers are "either hiding something or … afraid the results will be interpreted differently." 

A recent analysis sponsored by the Dutch government tried to assess the risk from asbestos for lung cancer. It looked only at "higher quality studies" and excluded the Quebec mine study "because a variety of limitations, notably insufficient job history information."

The CBC asked Dr. Bruce Case, a key participant in several McGill asbestos studies, if he would release the data:

CBC: Will you give Dr. Egilman the data he’s requesting?

Wolfgang's story

Wolfgang von Paelleske started work at the Johns Manville plant in Scarborough, Ont. in 1955. He opened up bales of asbestos and loaded it into hoppers. After years of ill health, von Paelleske was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died when he was 79.

Wolfgang von Paelleske as an active young man. (Courtesy of the von Palleske family)

His wife, Doreen, who washed his work clothes in the bathtub back in the 1950s was also diagnosed with mesothelioma and she died in July, 2011. His daughter, Aurora, is also showing early signs of the same disease. (Daughter Heidi tells his story in our video.)

DR. CASE:  I wouldn’t give Dr. Egilman the time of day.

CBC:  Why not?

DR. CASE:  Because he is not an honourable person.

CBC:  But if it’s scientific data that…

DR. CASE:  He’s not a scientist. He’s a social critic. He hasn’t done any original science, what would he do with it?  I am sharing the data with some American agencies.

CBC:  OK, will you give it to us?

DR. CASE:  No, I won’t give it to you.

No safe level of exposure

Asbestos was historically used for its heat resistance and insulating properties and was frequently added to cement, brake linings, fibres and shingles.

Today, asbestos is banned in more than 40 countries including all member states of the European Union. The World Health Organization has concluded that "all types of asbestos cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer and that there is no safe threshold level of exposure." 

In June, 2011, members of the Canadian delegation blocked a UN resolution that would have listed chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous material.

Worker at a machine in a factory using asbestos in India in 2009. (CBC)

While asbestos is severely restricted in Canada and the United States, it is still commonly used in developing countries like India and Vietnam. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 107,000 people die annually from asbestos exposure worldwide and Ken Takahashi, an epidemiologist affiliated with WHO, recently said that "asbestos tsunami" of deaths is going to hit Asia because of the continued use of the product there.

Several scientists, including McGill's Dr. Case, have publicly opposed exports of this mineral.

Two Conservative members of parliament stood up in the House of Commons in the past year to say that chrysotile can be safely handled based on studies, some of which come out of McGill:

"Mr. Speaker, scientific reviews show that chrysotile fibres can be used safely in a controlled environment at the national or international level."  — Christian Paradis, federal Minister of Industry and Quebec MP, House of Commons, Nov. 23, 2011.

"All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely in controlled conditions."  — Joe Oliver, Ontario MP, House of Commons, June 20, 2011. 

During the federal election campaign last April, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went to the asbestos region in Quebec and talked about the industry.

"Canada is one of a number of exporters of chrysotile and there are a number of countries in which it is legal who are buyers. This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where it is permitted."

There is a plan to reopen the Jeffrey Mine, the world’s largest asbestos mine, using a $58-million loan guarantee from the Quebec government. 

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  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the mine could reopen with a line of credit from the federal government. In fact, the mine could reopen with a loan guarantee from the Quebec government.
    Jan 02, 2012 7:01 PM ET