A prominent pneumologist is in the crosshairs of the French Senate because he apparently didn't disclose his paid work for an oil company during a Senate inquiry into the costs of air pollution. Michel Aubier, an asthma specialist at the Hôpital Bichat-Claude Bernard in Paris, could face prison time and a hefty fine if his alleged perjury goes to court.
Aubier, who is also a member of a research team at France's National Institute of Health and Medical Resrach (INSERM), told a Senate committee of inquiry that the link between air pollution—including diesel particles—and lung cancer is tenuous and controversial. Aubier, who was under oath, also told the committee that he had “no links of interests with economic actors” involved in this issue.
But earlier this month, newspapers Libération and Le Canard enchaîné revealed that the petrol firm Total pays Aubier as a medical adviser—€50,000 to €60,000 per year since the late 1990s, according to an article by broadsheet Le Monde on 18 March.
Aubier's mission for Total “is twofold: following up the health of the group's senior managers and advising the group's human resources management about public health and occupational health issues,” the company told Libération. Aubier also serves as an unpaid external member of the governing council of the Total Foundation.
Under France's penal code, which applies to Senate inquiry hearings, a false testimony is punishable by 5 years in jail and a €75,000 fine, but this can go up to 7 years and €100,000 if the false testimony is prompted by a donation or reward, financial or otherwise.
“I have only mentioned the three most frequent pathologies [asthma, chronic bronchitis, and acute bronchitis], without mentioning lung cancer, because the impact of air pollution on the latter is extremely weak and highly debated,” Aubier told senators at the hearing in April 2015.
The assessment of the World Health Organization (WHO), however, is unequivocal. In 2012, WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic based on “sufficient evidence”—a step up from the 1988 classification as “probably carcinogenic.” At the time, the chairman of the IARC working group, Christopher Portier, said, “The scientific evidence was compelling and the working group conclusion was unanimous: Diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans.” Aubier says that risk is dwarfed by the risks from smoking.
ScienceInsider contacted Aubier's office, which declined to comment. Aubier did admit to Libération that not mentioning his ties to Total was “a bit light,” but asserted that “these activities absolutely do not influence my judgment about air pollution and diesel.” He denied any conflict of interest.
Speaking on the Senate's in-house TV channel Public Sénat, Green senator and committee rapporteur Leila Aïchi dismissed Aubier's arguments as a mockery of the senators' work, saying his behavior was “unacceptable” and “dishonest.”
An INSERM spokesperson today explained to ScienceInsider that the institute has policies in place to handle conflicts of interest. Since Aubier is not on INSERM's payroll, the institute would not be in a position to take sanctions, the spokesperson says.
Aubier's employer, the Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris (AP-HP), a group of public hospitals in the Paris region, has distanced itself from Aubier’s actions. Although Aubier says he got his superior’s authorization in 1997, according to Libération, AP-HP says it had not been informed of his work for Total before the hearing. “I hope this kind of affair serves as a lesson, as a warning for those that don't know what represents a conflict of interest,” AP-HP Director Martin Hirsch told Public Sénat.
AP-HP's 105,000 staff members received a leaflet with their February pay slip to remind them of the rules of what extra work is and isn't allowed, a spokesperson for the organization says. Among the don'ts: advising someone in a legal dispute and taking interests in a company “in a way that compromises one's independence.” Other activities, including consulting, are subject to prior authorization.
The Senate committee of inquiry, which issued its report on air pollution last July, heard both Aubier and Hirsch in a closed meeting on 17 March to find out whether the newspapers' allegations are accurate. Next month, the Senate's bureau, an internal body responsible for settling procedural or disciplinary issues, will decide whether the case shall go to court.
*Update, 1 April, 1:18 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify Aubier's relationship with INSERM.