Edinburgh Uni urged to axe asbestos claim academic

Edinburgh University has been urged to drop the emeritus professor. Picture: TSPL
Edinburgh University has been urged to drop the emeritus professor. Picture: TSPL
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EDINBURGH University is facing pressure to sever links with a leading academic whose work has become embroiled in a US court case.

Ken Donaldson, emeritus professor at the institution, coauthored papers which the New York Supreme Court heard “intended to cast doubt on the capability of chrysotile asbestos to cause cancer”.

The research was funded by a grant from Georgia-Pacific, the accused in an asbestos litigation suit.

Professor Donaldson was not the main author, but his name appears on three of the papers.

The court heard that one author Stewart Holm was employed by GP - manufacturer of tissue, pulp, paper, packaging, building products and related chemicals - and GP’s “in-house counsel had reviewed the manuscripts before they were submitted for publication”.

The court has ordered an “in camera review”, which means the raw data used for the research papers must be made available to be independently analysed.

The most recent paper, published last year, compared the impact of two different types of asbestos - chrysotile and amphibole - in rats, arguing that the former was safer.

In their conclusion, the authors added: “No cellular or inflammatory response was observed in the lung or the pleural cavity in response to the CSP exposure.”

That is in stark contrast to the World Health Organization’s view on chrysotile asbestos.

“There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of all forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite),” the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said.

“Asbestos causes mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovary. Also positive associations have been observed between exposure to all forms of asbestos and cancer of the pharynx, stomach, and colorectum.”

The research papers and court case have led to stinging criticism of Professor Donaldson from the academic community.

Professor Rory O’Neill, of Stirling University’s occupational and environmental health research group, said: “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.”

He added: “If Edinburgh University does not wish to see its reputation tarnished, it should rescind Professor Donaldson’s Emeritus professorship.”

At least two of the articles coauthored by Professor Donaldson contained the declaration: “This work was supported by a grant from Georgia-Pacific.”

However, some experts have argued the researchers should have been even more open about their links with the company.

Susanna Bohme, deputy editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, wrote last year: “Evidence produced in the New York City Asbestos Litigation, provided to us by an attorney involved in that litigation, shows that Dr Donaldson received funding for asbestos litigation-related consulting for Georgia Pacific, a former manufacturer of asbestos-containing joint compound, facing action for asbestos-related claims.

“GP also lists Dr Donaldson as an expert witness in ongoing litigation.”

In Scotland, asbestos victims won a landmark ruling against insurers at the UK Supreme Court in 2011, which could see billions paid out to Scottish sufferers.

There are at least 1,200 Scots who have developed pleural plaques and will receive an estimated £20 million. However, the number of sufferers being diagnosed continues to grow and is not expected to peak until 2020.

The Scotsman has seen an invoice from Professor Donaldson to Georgia Pacific, charging £150 for one hour’s consulting.

An Edinburgh University spokeswoman said: “Professor Donaldson is a recognised expert in his field who retired from the University earlier this year.

“We are aware of the ongoing court case in the US that involves three papers co-authored by Professor Donaldson.”

Professor Donaldson declined to comment.