The journal Inhalation Toxicology has issued a fascinating correction notice covering four articles on various aspects of asbestos exposure by a group of researchers who failed to note their connection to Georgia-Pacific, the industrial giant that became caught up in a deluge of costly lawsuits over the carcinogenic chemical during the 1980s.
As the notice indicates, the ties weren’t mere tangents, but rather involved obvious — and obviously conflicting — relationships:
The publisher would like to apologise on behalf of the authors of the following 4 articles published in Inhalation Toxicology.
1. Brorby, Sheehan, Berman, Green, Holm, Re-Creation of Historical Chrysotile-Containing Joint Compounds, Inhalation Toxicology, 20: 1043–1053 (2008).
2. Bernstein, Donaldson, Decker, Gaering, Kunzendorf, Chevalier, Holm, A Biopersistence Study following Exposure To Chrysotile Asbestos Alone or in Combination with Fine Particles, Inhalation Toxicology, 20: 1009–1028 (2008).
3. Bernstein, Rogers, Sepulveda, Donaldson, Schuler, Gaering, Kunzendorf, Chevalier, Holm, The pathological response and fate in the lung and pleura of chrysotile in combination with fine particles compared to amosite asbestos following short-term inhalation exposure: interim results, Inhalation Toxicology, 2010, 22(11) 937–962 (2010).
4. Bernstein, Rogers, Sepulveda, Donaldson, Schuler, Gaering, Kunzendorf, Chevalier, Holm, Quantification of the pathological response and fate in the lung and pleura of chrysotile in combination with fine particles compared to amosite-asbestos following short-term inhalation exposure, Inhalation Toxicology, 2011; 23(7):372–391 (2011).
Since publication of these 4 articles we have had a request to add the following information to the Declaration of Interest section of each paper.
The additional statement reads:
“Georgia-Pacific has not sold chrysotile-containing joint compounds for more than 30 years, but litigation is pending in which individuals claim exposure to the Company’s historic products. The articles listed above report on work that Georgia-Pacific commissioned to address issues that have arisen in that litigation. I, Stewart E. Holm, representing Georgia-Pacific, am an author on all four papers. The other authors are consulting experts retained by or on behalf of Georgia-Pacific to conduct the research and prepare the articles. Dr. Donaldson has been listed as potential testifying expert witness by Georgia-Pacific, and Dr. Bernstein has testified as an expert witness for Georgia-Pacific.”
None of the papers has been cited more than eight times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, and the 2011 study has yet to be cited.
Dr. Bernstein is David Bernstein, who, according to the Center for Public Integrity, has a long history of conducting asbestos-friendly research funded by Georgia-Pacific and other companies in the industry:
Bernstein is the most active of a dozen or so industry-backed scientists who have helped fuel the asbestos trade by producing papers, lecturing, and testifying on the relative safety of chrysotile. The industry has spent tens of millions of dollars funding their studies, which have been cited some 5,000 times in the medical literature as well as by lobby groups from India to Canada. Bernstein’s work alone has been cited 460 times. He has been quoted or mentioned in Zimbabwe’s Financial Gazette, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and other publications around the world. His curriculum vitae suggests that he’s been a one-man road show for chrysotile, giving talks in 19 countries since 1999. Among his stops: Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, and Vietnam. The industry paid for all of his travel, Bernstein told [the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists] in an interview.
Holm, according to his Linkedin page, is director of toxicology and chemical management at Georgia-Pacific. We found his name in a December 2011 court document from New York State, in which one of the issues under consideration was a claim by Holm and Georgia-Pacific that the communications between the company and the researchers in the asbestos studies were privileged. According to the record:
Georgia-Pacific vigorously asserted throughout these proceedings that it commissioned these studies in anticipation of litigation. Indeed it has admitted that “at an appropriate time and after their publication is complete, GP plans to introduce the results of these studies in litigation.
To which we say, insert raised eyebrows here.
Joris Roulleau, managing editor of Inhalation Toxicology, said the authors contacted the publication to request the correction:
They did not state why it was incomplete in the first place. Requirements have changed quite a lot in the past few years and conflict of interest policies are something that many authors are only just starting to grasp. That said these papers are used as supporting evidence in various litigations in the US, which may or may not have played a role in the authors’ request (I recall receiving an email from the other side’s lawyer about this afterwards).
The lawyer contacted us to request that we retract the papers because of ‘fraudulent’ declaration of interest. He was unaware that the authors had just a few weeks earlier asked for the DOIs to be corrected. I informed him of this and as such this is where the matter ended as far as we are concerned (it is not our role to judge whether the author’s omission was ‘fraudulent’ or a genuine mistake, let alone ‘punish’ them by retracting the paper, since the request came from them). The lawyer replied in a most slanderous manner and informed all the associate editors of the issue. We didn’t respond. …
Throughout we have tried to follow COPE’s guidelines. Also, in July last year Inhalation Toxicology had started requesting that all authors complete the ICMJE COI form when submitting a paper.
We have now realised that the ICMJE COI form doesn’t explicitly cover this kind of potential conflict of interest, nor does it require authors to disclose who reviewed their paper prior to submission and if any third party asserted control over the submission of the paper.
These shortfalls have only come to light with these cases and we are looking to address them. We feel these elements should be disclosed, but they were not (and still are not) included in our DOI requirements.
Would Inhalation Toxicology have published the articles had they contained the eventual disclosures? Roulleau:
Probably, although that would be for the peer reviewers at the time to say. It is a problem that reviewers didn’t have this information, but I doubt it would have changed their evaluation of the papers. They found the papers scientifically sound and unless the involvement of GP had resulted in doubts about the data for example, the peer review would have been conducted in the same way.