Journal to retract study declaring safety of asbestos roofs: Report

joehOnly a few months after publication, an environmental journal has told an activist group it plans to retract a paper about the safety of roofing products containing asbestos after facing heavy criticism.

This summer, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH) received multiple letters asking the to retract the paper. Critics of the paper — which concluded that exposures to asbestos-containing roofing products were within safety limits — argued the article provided misleading information, grouped different materials with different asbestos exposures together, and failed to note the approving editor’s ties to the asbestos industry.

The article was published as a case study, which is considered a type of “column” by the journal, thereby bypassing its peer-review system; according to an email the journal sent to the organization Right on Canada (which a representative forwarded to Retraction Watch), this served as the basis for the journal’s decision to pull the paper.

According to the email, the journal’s editorial board decided on August 10 to retract “Airborne asbestos exposures associated with the installation and removal of roofing products” due to

an inadequate peer review stemming from the miscategorization of the article as a Case Study and not a Review article.

The email adds the authors will be invited to resubmit their paper as a review article.

Jason Lotter, the study’s first author and a health scientist at the firm Cardno ChemRisk in Chicago, Illinois, told us the situation had only recently been brought to the authors’ attention, adding:

My co-authors and I are still trying to understand the factors that have lead up to the journal’s draft decision, therefore I cannot provide a comment at this time.

We reached out to Mark Nicas, the journal’s editor-in-chief who is an emeritus adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Nicas referred us to Stephen Reynolds, a member of the journal’s board of directors from Colorado State University, who sent us this statement:

The JOEH Board has not yet completed its work to address this situation. Once this process is completed the Board will release a communication and will be able to respond to your request.

However, the email sent to Right On Canada notes that the Board of Directors voted to retract the asbestos article on August 10.

According to Right On Canada, JOEH received multiple letters about the paper — one, dated July 22, was from Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International (OK International), a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing “inequities in environmental standards between developed and developing countries.” OK International, who also published an article about the paper’s shortcomings, note that asbestos is banned in 52 countries, as it can cause lung diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Gottesfeld’s letter to JOEH addresses some “false claims” made in the original paper. First is the notion that asbestos roofing products are thought to be “nonfriable” — meaning, not easily crumbled. Regarding this, Gottesfeld writes:

Asbestos-cement products if disturbed, damaged or cut will become friable under EPA regulations. Friable is a temporary condition used to characterize waste materials and does not characterize the ability of asbestos fibers to become airborne following typical construction activities in the installation or removal of these products.

Next, Gottesfeld addresses the paper’s claim that asbestos products are not expected to release “appreciable amounts” of asbestos fibers, saying:

…the majority of exposures from this type of roofing material exceeds [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards directly contradicts the statement by Lotter et al. that “The findings indicate that short-term and full-shift exposures from the use of asbestos-containing roofing products were typically well below applicable occupational exposure limits.”

Gottesfeld concludes that the study

…provides misleading information and contradicts some of the key original research that it references. Furthermore, the article groups together different types of roofing materials that are associated with very different airborne asbestos exposures while misrepresenting and falsely summarizing the data.

On July 28, the journal received another letter co-authored by Kathleen Ruff, Director of Right On Canada, who has criticized the study (and the asbestos industry in general). In that letter, the authors acknowledge that the study disclosed that some authors and the funder — Cardno ChemRisk — have ties to the asbestos industry, but failed to disclose the conflicts of the approving editor:

The editor of the Case Study Column, who approved the Lotter article for publication, was Charles Blake. The JOEH provides no information about Mr. Blake or whether he has any conflicting interests regarding the Lotter article. A court document, however, shows that Mr. Blake has extensive financial ties to asbestos interests and has testified in 118 court cases on behalf of asbestos defendants in the past four years. It demonstrates unacceptable incompetence, in our opinion, that Mr. Blake approved for publication an article that contains such misleading and inaccurate information.

It is particularly disturbing that the scientific misinformation contained in the article serves his interest in defending companies facing asbestos litigation.

Here’s a link to the document mentioned in the letter, sent to us by Ruff.

Ruff told us that it is “strange” that Blake was used as a column editor for the paper despite having “huge financial interests.”

Blake did not reply to a message left with his assistant.

After receiving no response from the journal about her queries apart from the reason for retraction, Ruff wrote a follow-up letter to JOEH on August 19, noting that the journal’s decision

omits any reference to the scientific and ethical improprieties that were brought to the attention of the JOEH and ignores the requests for action that were submitted. It thus covers up the serious issues that have been raised and hides them under a technical matter of “miscategorization”, inviting the authors to re-submit their article under a different category.

We’ll update the post with anything else we learn.

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