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Toxicologist denies wrong-doing in asbestos case

A leading toxicologist whose work on asbestos is suspected by a US court of aiding fraud has responded to critics who accuse him of not disclosing a conflict of interest in the case.

Ken Donaldson, an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, UK, says he contributed to academic studies on the effects of asbestos in good faith, but was “naïve” not to note his separate paid consulting for the company involved, Georgia-Pacific, an Atlanta-based multinational and subsidiary of Koch Industries.

He did not know at the time that the research was done under the auspices of lawyers for Georgia-Pacific, who planned to use the results to fight asbestos-related cancer lawsuits, he adds.

A New York Appeal Court this June ordered that Georgia-Pacific turn over the raw data and internal communications related to eight papers that, judges said, were “intended to cast doubt on the capability of chrysotile [white] asbestos to cause cancer”.

Donaldson, who was a co-author on three of the papers, has come under fire from other environmental health researchers, both for failing to declare his interests on the papers, and later for claiming (misleadingly, he admits) that he had no links or funding connections to asbestos manufacturers. Some are calling for Edinburgh University to sever ties with Donaldson, a world expert on lung diseases caused by inhaled particles from asbestos to carbon nanotubes.

But he told Nature that Edinburgh University was “not intending to run me off the premises yet”, saying that he welcomed open review of the papers in the court case, which would “show that I acted in good faith, and I have no worries about that”.

The papers themselves, published from 2008-2011 in Inhalation Toxicology, involved exposing rats for 30 hours over five days to some plaster-like mud mixed with chrysotile asbestos, similar to a product used to seal joints in drywall that Georgia-Pacific sold in the 1970s. They found that the asbestos fibres were cleared more quickly from the lung compared to another type of asbestos, and that after a year, they did not cause an inflammatory response.

“I was sent the papers in near-final form,” says Donaldson, who says he also saw the raw data data in the paper* and reviewed the discussion, of legitimate toxicological interest for its tracing of the asbestos fibres’ fate in the body. “You could not from these papers – unless you were a lawyer – deny that chrysotile asbestos causes cancer. It’s a single exposure for a short time,” he says, adding that epidemiological studies already show that chrysotile asbestos causes cancer.

The papers noted that the “research was sponsored by a grant from Georgia-Pacific”. But they failed to note any other ties. Last year, the journal published an author-requested correction, noting that Georgia-Pacific commissioned the work during litigation; that one of the authors, Stewart Holm, represented the firm, and that the others were consulting experts including one, David Bernstein, who had testified as an expert witness for the firm; with Donaldson listed by the company as a “potential testifying expert witness”. (The journal’s managing editor, Joris Roulleau, told Retraction Watch last year that the journal would probably still have published the papers even with these disclosures, since peer reviewers found the work scientifically sound.)

In an editorial published in Environmental Health this August, editors-in-chief Philippe Grandjean and David Ozonoff noted that the “carefully worded text still leaves the readers in the dark about who did what and how the company interests affected the research”.

Donaldson says that he has no recollection of receiving conflict-of-interest forms on the paper, and did not know at the time that lawyers were involved in commissioning and overseeing the study. Despite what Georgia-Pacific says, he adds that he has never been, and will never be, a testifying expert witness for the company. “They may have asked me to be a witness, but I don’t remember that.”

Hazards magazine, which has investigated the case in detail, noted that a California court hearing asbestos cases in June raised concerns about Donaldson’s conflicts of interest, because he had been “hired by Georgia-Pacific as a consultant for the asbestos litigation project”. (Holm said Donaldson had been paid about $6,000, while six of his co-authors received payments totalling $2.3 million.) Donaldson says he has been paid to write background papers on asbestos and pathogenicity for a number of companies including Georgia-Pacific. “Needless to say these reports contain the same opinions as I have expressed in scientific publications.”

But in an unrelated 2011 letter to the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, Donaldson also asserted that he was “not allied to any asbestos manufacturing company nor pro-asbestos pressure group, nor in receipt of funds from any such source”. Donaldson says that letter related to a study on pure asbestos exposure, and he meant that he had never worked for the pure-asbestos industry. It was plain that he had co-published with Georgia-Pacific at the time; but ties with asbestos-users such as this company were not in his head. “I was naïve in thinking people would see a difference, I wrote back quickly to the journal and admitted I’d made a mistake,” he says.

Donaldson says that he thinks all forms of asbestos can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer in humans; a much-cited 2007 paper he authored, which says that “chrysotile can be used safely with low risk,” is only true if there are tight regulations and exposure is well controlled, he adds.

Rory O’Neill, editor of Hazards and professor of occupational and environmental policy research at the University of Stirling, told the Scotsman that: “The professor’s willingness to deliver a rationale for continued chrysotile use, while making a flat and flatly untrue denial of links to asbestos interests, raises further serious questions. If Edinburgh University does not wish to see its reputation tarnished, it should rescind Professor Donaldson’s Emeritus professorship.”

But Donaldson says he is merely caught in the cross-fire of litigation. As for lessons learned, he adds: “Toxicologists and industry have got to work together – but it’s got to be done openly and transparently. I’m hyper-sensitive with my students now about declaring conflicts of interest – it’s a case where working with industry does look bad if you don’t make the links very clear. I regret that the forms in these papers weren’t filled in properly, but I still think that anyone who looked would have known they were paid for by industry.”

*This article was corrected on 9 October. Donaldson saw the data in the paper, he says, but not the raw data used to generate that.


  1. Report this comment

    Sergio Stagnaro said:

    I totally agree, obviously, on the respect of conflict of interest. On the contrary, regarding the statement “intended to cast doubt on the capability of chrysotile [white] asbestos to cause cancer”, a clarification is certainly necessary. Asbestos, one among a flurry of cancer environmental risk factors, can contribute to the occurrence of cancer, to the condition that the individuals are involved by Oncological Terrain-Dependent- Inherited Real Risk.

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