Kathleen Ruff, RightOnCanada.ca
The Italian Society of Medical Statistics and Clinical Epidemiology (SISMEC) is requiring a group of scientists to correct false information they put forward in an article denying harm caused by chrysotile asbestos mined at the Balangero mine in northern Italy. The article, Critical reappraisal of Balangero chrysotile and mesothelioma risk, by Edward Ilgren et al., was published by SISMEC’s official journal, Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health (EBPH) in early 2015.
In a letter of October 5, 2015, the president of SISMEC, Franco Cavallo, states that SISMEC has asked the journal’s Editors to publish an erratum and blame the authors for having altered a citation and having put forward incorrect information.
The correction is a result of a complaint made to EBPH and SISMEC regarding serious scientific and ethical improprieties in the article.
The article denies that chrysotile asbestos mined at the Balangero chrysotile asbestos mine caused harm to health of the workers or members of the nearby community. The authors rejected the findings of independent Italian scientists, whose extensive studies have repeatedly documented harm caused to workers and residents by the mine’s chrysotile asbestos.
Instead, Ilgren and his co-authors hypothesized that the workers at the Balangero mine and nearby residents, who contracted mesothelioma, must somehow have been exposed to amphibole asbestos. Ilgren and his co-authors stated that “Crocidolite and amosite were also transferred to Balangero in jute bags”, citing an article which, they claimed, provided evidence of this so-called fact.
In reality, the article makes no such statement and provides no such evidence.
This is the second Erratum that the authors have been required to publish for the article. The first Erratum was published by EBPH earlier this year in response to the complaint to EBPH and disclosed the extensive financial ties of the authors with asbestos interests.
SISMEC will create a commission to safeguard the journal’s ethical principles and peer review process
At its annual conference in September 2015, the executive committee of SISMEC expressed concern about the scientific content of the Balangero article and a second article by Ilgren at al., which denied harm caused by Bolivian crocidolite asbestos. SISMEC has issued a warning to EBPH concerning the quality and ethical standards of its peer-review process.
In addition, SISMEC’s executive committee decided to appoint a commission to safeguard the scientific quality and the ethical standards of its journal, EBPH.
Scientists failed to correct information they knew to be false
In a letter of October 9, 2015, the scientists, who submitted the complaint regarding the Ilgren et al. asbestos articles, welcome the actions SISMEC has taken. They note, however, that after their false information was pointed out to them, Ilgren and his co-authors failed to correct the false information in their response published by EBPH.
“Refusing to correct false information, after it has been pointed out to the authors that it is false information, constitutes deliberate dishonesty and, in our opinion, is unacceptable conduct under even the lowest scientific and ethical standards,” state the scientists in their October 9 letter. “It is a betrayal of science and a betrayal of the public trust.”
The scientists repeat their call for the Balangero article to be retracted, stating:
“SISMEC should not tolerate, in our opinion, that its journal serves asbestos interests and endangers the health of populations. Surely there has already been sufficient wrongdoing in Italy and other countries with regard to distorting the evidence regarding asbestos risks and harming workers, without SISMEC adding to it?”
The joint Editor-in-Chief of SISMEC’s journal, Carlo La Vecchia, and one of the journal’s Executive Editors, Paolo Boffetta, act as consultants and expert witnesses for Italian companies facing asbestos charges regarding deaths of workers. La Vecchia is Associate Editor of another journal, the European Journal of Cancer Prevention (EJCP). In an article entitled Role of stopping exposure and recent exposure to asbestos in the risk of mesothelioma, published by the EJCP, La Vecchia and Boffetta stated that they had no conflict of interest. The article denied harm caused by continued exposure to asbestos. Both authors were at the time being paid as consultants to put forward this same argument in court to assist company representatives to defeat asbestos litigation and not be held accountable for harm suffered by workers. The article itself was submitted as evidence in court by the companies.
When requested to publish a correction and disclose their conflicting financial interests, La Vecchia and Boffetta refused to do so and continued to deny that they had any conflicting interests. A complaint of unethical conduct was made to the Committee on Publication Ethics, which upheld the complaint and recommended that the journal require the authors to publish a Correction. The publisher of EJCP then required La Vecchia and Boffetta to publish a Correction to disclose their conflicting asbestos interests.
The EJCP had, since 2001, been an official journal of the International Association of Cancer Registries (IACR). IACR was asked to reconsider this relationship in light of the above unethical conduct by the journal’s Associate Editor, Carlo La Vecchia, and Paolo Boffetta. In response to the concern, IACR terminated its relationship with the EJCP.
Collegium Ramazzini rejects the scientists’ work as “false, mendacious, and scientifically unfounded”
In a commentary, Comments on the causation of malignant mesothelioma, issued on October 14, 2015, the Collegium Ramazinni addresses the arguments put forward by La Vecchia and Boffetta, denying harm caused by continuing exposure to asbestos, stating:
“The Collegium Ramazzini rejects as false, mendacious, and scientifically unfounded the claim put forth by the Italian asbestos industry and its expert witnesses that in cases of prolonged exposures to asbestos only the earliest periods of exposure contribute to mesothelioma induction, while all subsequent exposures have no causal role.
The Collegium Ramazzini is deeply concerned that acceptance of this false claim will contribute to the unjust denial of workers’ compensation and civil damages to affected workers, that it will hinder efforts to diagnose and prevent malignant mesothelioma, and that ultimately it will undermine the health of the public in Italy and in countries around the world.”
Responsibility of scientific journals
The only proof that ethical standards exist is whether they are enforced. When ethical standards are not enforced, workers and populations are exposed to unnecessary harm and preventable death.
The responsibility of a scientific society, such as SISMEC, should be to ensure that its journal enforces high scientific and ethical standards, rejects industry influence, and protects public health. The example set by those in leadership positions provides key evidence as to whether a journal’s commitment to ethical standards is real or a pretense.
In appointing scientists to leadership positions in its journal, SISMEC should require that the scientists demonstrate a strong track record and commitment to independent science, free from conflict of interest, dedicated to protect public health, not vested interests.
The Joint Editor-in-Chief, Carlo La Vecchia, and Executive Editor, Paolo Boffetta, of SISMEC’s journal, EBPH, are scientists whose industry-funded work has been condemned as false, mendacious, and scientifically unfounded, and as being work that endangers public health and worker justice. They have demonstrated unethical conduct in failing to disclose their industry conflicts of interest.
The commission that SISMEC has now created to safeguard the ethical principles of its journal should require that all editors of the journal must demonstrate high scientific and ethical standards. La Vecchia and Boffetta have failed to meet those standards.
Until SISMEC requires such standards from its editors, SISMEC’s stated commitment to safeguard ethical standards will lack credibility.