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Doubt, Whitewashing, and Priorities

A letter to the editor was recently published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene, a British scientific publication. Its three signers were responding to an article authored by the Annals Editor-in-Chief, Trevor Ogden. Ogden’s article covered a wide range of topics, but of particular interest is the debate over a group of researchers at McGill University who studied mortality among asbestos miners in Quebec.

Is it misleading to argue that these scientists whitewashed over the dangers of asbestos? Ogden thinks it is, and he criticizes the critics of the McGill group. He also warns against the overstatement of risks, arguing that in general, overstatement can undermine the credibility, reputation, and effectiveness of those who wish to combat a given risk. And what about the understatement of risks? May harm perhaps result from not taking a risk seriously enough?

Ogden tells his readers that “as Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, puts it, ‘Science deals in provisional truths.’”

Well, here are some truths that the scientific community generally agrees upon:

– Asbestos is a known human carcinogen.
– There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos.
– Globally, asbestos takes the lives of as many as 140,000 workers annually.
– It is estimated that over 100,000 workers will die of asbestos diseases over the next decade in the United States alone.

These truths, whether considered provisional or absolute, are the basis of the recommendations to ban asbestos by the World Health Organization, the European Union, and the International Labor Organization. Banning asbestos is a policy which has been adopted by over 50 countries around the world.

But the United States, Canada, and other countries have not yet banned asbestos, due in part to the active opposition of scientists like those in the McGill group.

Doubt and skepticism have a vital role to play in scientific inquiry, but so does common sense. Asbestos causes fatal diseases, and “… in order to ensure adequate protection, there is no alternative to a total ban.”(Terracini B. Med Lav. 2006 Mar-Apr; 97(2):383-92.) Is the skepticism of a minority more important than the hundreds of thousands of lives it puts at risk?

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