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The needs of industry

In the 1960s, faced with increasing scientific evidence that all types of asbestos caused mesothelioma the asbestos industry sought to fight back in the same way as the tobacco industry and establish a scientific counter argument. The early investigations into asbestos and mesothelioma made no differentiation between types of asbestos, they all caused mesothelioma.

80% of Canadian asbestos was mined at Quebec in the Thetford mines, they were the world’s largest producer of chrysotile. Only about 2% of asbestos used in the world was blue, from 2 mines in South Africa and Australia. The vast majority of asbestos used worldwide was chrysotile. As they could no longer deny that asbestos caused mesothelioma they sought to change the discussion and blame blue asbestos (and later contaminants) as this would not greatly affect their profits.

In 1966 the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association (QAMA) run by Johns-Manville and other multinational asbestos companies set up an organization called the Institute of Occupational & Environmental Health (IOEH). It was financed with $2 million dollars and controlled by the asbestos companies. The stated purpose was to be “independent of any other institution – university or governmental – so that its policy can be determined by the needs of the industry”

Professor JC McDonald and McGill University’s Department of Epidemiology was given $1million dollars by the IOEH to carry out the biggest study every undertaken on Quebec asbestos miners.

To estimate the fibre levels that the miners were exposed to at work McDonald chose to use a method of dust sampling, the midget dust impinger, which was accepted as outdated and grossly inaccurate for this type of study. The conversion of results for fibre counting purposes was only13% better than a random guess. He was advised before the start of the work that this was the wrong equipment to assess the cumulative risk of exposure.

With the aid of this equipment McDonald came up with figures that showed that exposure to chrysotile in an asbestos mine was safer and had a lower risk of lung cancer than in the normal population in Quebec, in effect chrysotile gave protection to workers against lung cancer. So ludicrous was this result that McDonald then adapted the data to show instead that chrysotile asbestos was innocuous and that workers could be exposed to very high levels of white asbestos without any adverse effects to health.

No independent study has ever replicated these results. Indeed a study in a US textile factory that used Quebec chrysotile showed a far higher cancer risk at far lower levels of exposure.

McDonald testified before US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and at the World Health Organisation, proclaiming the safety of chrysotile. He had stated in evidence “I do not work, nor am I associated with any asbestos producer or manufacturer.”

Over the years the asbestos industry, using McDonald’s evidence, has succeeded in defeating calls for stricter safety protection by minimising the risks to workers. It used his evidence to oppose the EU ban on asbestos and to argue for the continued export of asbestos into the third world at the risk to the lives of workers and their families.

McDonald had testified as a paid expert witness in litigation on behalf of many asbestos companies to defeat claims by injured workers and their families.

In June 2012 the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (JPC-SE) stated “review of the epidemiologic evidence confirms that all types of asbestos fibre are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death.” 

“Similar to the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry has funded and manipulated research to manufacture findings favourable to its own interests. It has set up front organisations claiming to be expert scientific institutes…they are, in reality, lobby groups promoting the continued use of asbestos.”

The World Health Organization has concluded that there is no safe exposure level to chrysotile asbestos and it is classed as a Group 1 Carcinogen.

Professor JC McDonald is said to have died peacefully at the age of 98 in Montreal in April 2016. Of the asbestos used commercially 95% was chrysotile, much of it promoted using McDonald’s “innocuous” label. Sadly a peaceful death cannot be expected for the estimated 5 million people who will die prematurely due to asbestos related disease.