The Lobby Lives – Lobbyists Attack IARC for Conducting Scientific Research

“[A]n anti-asbestos lobby, based in the Mount Sinai School of Medicine of the City University of New York, promoted the fiction that asbestos was an all-pervading menace, and trumped up a number of asbestos myths for widespread dissemination, through media eager for bad news.”

This statement was not the ranting of an industrialist whose company was bankrupted by asbestos personal injury cases; nor was it the complaint of an industry scientist, dismayed at a body of research that showed his industry’s product to be harmful.  The statement was made by one of the most independent, thoughtful scientists who has worked on asbestos health effects, the late Doug Liddell, of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, in McGill University.  F.D.K. Liddell, “Magic, Menace, Myth and Malice,” 41 Ann. Occup. Hyg. 3, 3 (1997).

Although Professor Liddell died in 2003,  the “Lobby” lives and thrives.  Witness the article published earlier this month, in The Lancet.   David Holmes, “IARC in the dock over ties with asbestos industry,” 381 Lancet 359 (2013).   A Scientist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Valerie McCormack, accepted an invitation to present data at a scientific conference in Kiev, Russia, on chrysotile asbestos risk assessment and management.  McCormack’s decision set off a firestorm of protest from various sources, claiming that the Russian scientists were in “cahoots” with the Russian asbestos industry.

The Lancet article presents a muddled account of the issues, but a persistent reader may make out several supposed concerns of the “Lobbyists.” First, the Lobbyists objected on grounds that an earlier version of the paper to be delivered by McCormack, “Estimating the asbestos-related lung cancer burden from mesothelioma mortality,” was too favorable to chrysotile in relation to commercial amphibole asbestos. (The Lancet fails to mention that McCormack’s paper has since been published, with co-authorship by some distinguished scientists.  See Valerie McCormack, Julian Peto, G. Byrnes, K. Straif, and P. Boffetta, “Estimating the asbestos-related lung cancer burden from mesothelioma mortality,” 106 Brit. J. Cancer 575 (2012).)

Second, the Lobbyists objected to IARC’s decision to collaborate on a study of Russian miners and millers, with Evgeny Kovalevkiy. The study, entitled  “Historical cohort study of cancer mortality following exposure to chrysotile asbestos at the Uralasbest plant in Asbest, Russian Federation” is supported by the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Occupational Health (SRIOH), which supports the continued mining and exporting of chrysotile asbestos.  Especially vexing to the Lobbyists, Kovalevskiy has personally advocated public policy that encourages the continued use of chrysotile.  In the words of three American political scientists who sent a letter of protest to the IARC:

“Kovalevskiy is a leading promoter of use of chrysotile asbestos. He testified before the Supreme Court of Brazil in August 2012, as witness on behalf of the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute.  He testified that there is no evidence whatsoever to justify banning the use of chrysotile asbestos; that he opposes placing chrysotile asbestos on the Rotterdam Convention’s List of Hazardous Substances; that, in the past, harm to health was caused by the use of amphibole asbestos and excessive, prolonged exposure levels to chrysotile asbestos, but that, today, chrysotile asbestos is causing no harm to health in Russia. We consider that it is unacceptable that a scientist, who is a promoter of chrysotile asbestos use, should be a lead scientist on an IARC research project regarding chrysotile asbestos.”

“IARC in the dock” at 360 (quoting letter signed by Richard Lemen, Arthur Frank, and Barry Castleman).  The Lancet article conveniently omits any reference to the remunerative and unremunerative work by these gentlemen for the American anti-asbestos litigation industry.

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