A few days after that testimony, David Durham, a 67-year-old retired electrician in Louisville, Kentucky, would be diagnosed with mesothelioma. Durham had been exposed to asbestos through work he did at some of Louisville’s biggest factories, his lawyers alleged in a lawsuit.
But a physician testifying on behalf the companies blamed Durham’s mesothelioma in part on radiation treatments he received for cancer in 1967. The doctor relied on a few articles recently published in scientific journals, including one in Cancer Causes and Control. The authors of that review included Goodman and Valberg.
When Durham’s lawyers, Hans Poppe and Joseph Satterley, realized that this article was funded by Tucker Ellis & West, one of the law firms for the defense, they decided to subpoena all records the firm had about that article.
They were stunned when they started reading the 498 pages of emails between Nelson, Valberg and Goodman.
“This is not the way real science works. It doesn’t start with a lawyer coming up with a theory,” Poppe said.
Nelson told the Center that his former law firm should not have released the emails because they were confidential under attorney-client privilege. He is suing Tucker Ellis & West for damages. He said the firm didn’t release other emails showing he didn’t want Gradient to publish anything unsupported by science.
Nelson acknowledges that the science used in asbestos lawsuits can be twisted.
“In one way I’m glad that I’m out of asbestos litigation because I think there’s a lot of corruption in it,” including on the part of lawyers working for mesothelioma victims, he said. “I’ve heard other attorneys telling experts ‘This is the opinion I’d want you to have.’ ”
Nelson said he never did such a thing, and doesn’t think Gradient did anything improper in the Collins case. Still, he said, no law firm wants to hire him because opposing counsel could always say, “Look what Nelson did over here, and he’s trying to do the same thing here.”
The emails revealed that Valberg and Goodman had trouble getting the three Nelson-commissioned articles published in journals. Two of the three eventually were accepted. But the article linking cigarette smoking to mesothelioma never made it into print.
The first sentence of that article said, “Cigarette smoking may increase mesothelioma risk in individuals not exposed to asbestos.”
In a deposition, Goodman tried to distance herself from the notion that she simply agreed to publish Nelson’s scientific theory. A lawyer for a mesothelioma victim asked Goodman if the source of the funding had had any influence on the article.
Goodman: No, and that should be obvious by the fact that our opinions are different than those of Evan Nelson in many cases.
Poppe: In what way?
Goodman: Well, for example, he believed that the epidemiology evidence showed an association between smoking and mesothelioma, and we did not conclude that.
The manuscript Goodman and Valberg wrote concluded there was data suggesting that cigarette smoking causes mesothelioma, in keeping with Nelson’s theory. Goodman and Valberg conceded that no study of smokers had ever shown the link, but said such studies were statistically weak because they didn’t include enough smokers.
One of the scientists asked to review the manuscript for the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment didn’t buy this explanation. “NOT TRUE,” the reviewer wrote in all caps.
As a standard practice, peer-reviewed journals send manuscripts to other scientists, who comment anonymously and recommend for or against publication. In this case, all three reviewers gave the article a thumbs-down.
Another reviewer said, “The logic in this paper is very fuzzy.”
And the final reviewer said, “This paper presents what I consider a highly biased review of the evidence that tobacco exposure is associated with an increased risk of mesothelioma. I strongly suspect the authors must work with someone with a strong financial interest in this subject. … The evidence that tobacco smoke is associated with mesothelioma is if anything extremely weak, and hardly convincing.”
Even Nelson questioned Goodman’s commitment to getting the paper published. “I don’t know how hard she tried,” he said.
Goodman continues to testify in mesothelioma lawsuits and write articles exonerating asbestos. Citing other industry-funded research, she wrote in 2013 that the most common form of asbestos — chrysotile — wasn’t responsible for higher rates of mesothelioma and lung cancer in electricians.
This has become a standard defense in asbestos cases. The position is rejected, however, by most of the scientific community. In 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, concluded that all forms of asbestos cause mesothelioma. That same year, a coalition of nine epidemiological organizations issued a joint statement calling for a worldwide ban of asbestos.
“Numerous well-respected international and national scientific organisations, through an impartial and rigorous process of deliberation and evaluation, have concluded that all forms of asbestos are capable of inducing mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other diseases,” the statement said.
At the time, Goodman served on the board of directors of one of the organizations, the American College of Epidemiology, which endorsed the statement. Behind the scenes, she tried to prevent it from being issued. After reviewing a draft, Goodman wrote:
“I do not think this document accurately reflects the science. Before I go on, I would like to mention that I am involved in asbestos litigation. While I understand that some may perceive my position as biased, I feel that it puts me in the position of being quite familiar with the most up-to-date science.”
Goodman went on to argue that there is a “safe dose” of asbestos.
She was outvoted by her colleagues on the board. The statement wound up being endorsed by 227 public-health organizations and experts.
The following year, citing other industry studies, Goodman again asserted in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology that there is a safe dose of chrysotile asbestos. In the same article, she contradicted the work she did for Evan Nelson, writing that “smoking has not been associated with mesothelioma.”
Pam Collins’s lawyer said efforts by industry consultants to absolve asbestos of blame show they will say almost anything.
“Why are some of these companies putting so much money into research to be published in scientific and medical journals years and sometimes decades after they stop making the product?” Acton asked rhetorically. “Is its purpose for the advancement of medicine? Is its purpose to address a public health concern? Its purpose is for litigation. It’s science for sale.”