Because the link between malignant mesothelioma and asbestos exposure is so definitive, you would think that by now no scientist would try to prove otherwise. Especially with the loss of life, pain and suffering that malignant mesothelioma causes.
But alas, you’d be thinking incorrectly.
The bigger question to ponder here is can science – and more specifically scientists – be bought? Can the lure of money influence their research results? Would a scientist knowingly or unknowingly come up with conclusions that would enhance the bottom line of the business paying for the research?
According to detailed online reports in Hazards, a UK occupational health and safety magazine and the US scientific journal Nature, a leading toxicologist’s work on asbestos is suspected by US courts in California and New York of aiding fraud.
But the toxicologist, Ken Donaldson, an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, UK, claims he contributed to academic studies on the effects of asbestos in good faith and was “naïve” not to disclose his separate paid consulting for the company involved, Georgia-Pacific, an Atlanta-based multinational and subsidiary of Koch Industries.
He also declares that he did not know at the time that the research was done under the direction of lawyers for Georgia-Pacific, who planned to use the results to fight asbestos claims.
New York’s Supreme Court Appellate Division in June ordered Georgia-Pacific to turn over the raw data and internal communications related to research that, judges said, were “intended to cast doubt on the capability of chrysotile [white] asbestos to cause cancer”. The substance is a component in Georgia Pacific’s joint compound used in construction projects.
Donaldson, who was a co-author on some of the research, has been criticized by other environmental health researchers, both for failing to declare his interests on the papers, and later for claiming that he had no links or funding connections to asbestos manufacturers. Some are calling for Edinburgh University to sever ties with Donaldson, a previously well-regarded world expert on lung diseases caused by inhaled particles of various types.
Georgia-Pacific allegedly funded the research in an attempt to prove that many asbestos-exposed cancer sufferers could go uncompensated because they were exposed to the wrong kind of “shorter” chrysotile fibers, were not exposed at high enough levels or, if exposed at a high level, not exposed long enough. Global exports of chrysotile increased by 20 per cent in 2012.
Laurie Kazan Allen of the London-based International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) – my sister – told Hazards: “The lack of transparency is what is appalling on this. Donaldson, like many of his co-authors, clearly had an undeclared relationship with Georgia-Pacific. Professor Donaldson says the conclusions of the papers are ‘indisputable’, conclusions the court determined could be part of a Georgia-Pacific bid to deny the asbestos cancer link.”