The Chromium-6 Fraud

In 1987 Zhang JianDong published a study linking chromium-6 in
drinking water to cancer. In 1997 he published a new study retracting his findings —
further analysis showed that chromium-6 wasn’t to blame. All
part of the normal progress of science you would think. Except
for a few small things.

1. Zhang did not write the 1997 retraction published under his name.

2. Zhang did not agree with the conclusions of the 1997 study.

3. The 1997 study was actually written by consultants from ChemRisk hired by PG&E. And PG&E
was being sued for contaminating drinking water with chromium-6.

4. In the 1997 study Chemrisk did not disclose that they were
being paid millions of dollars by a company being sued for
contaminating drinking water with chromium-6.

5. An independent scientist who examined the data concluded that there
was a link between chromium-6 in the water and cancer and that
you could make a case that the 1997 study was a “scientific fraud”.

Revere tells the story at Effect Measure. Peter Waldman’s story
in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) has
more details, and there is really extensive and detailed report,
Chrome-Plated Fraud, by the Environmental Working Group.

Which brings us to Michael Fumento, recently fired by Scripps Howard
News Service for failing to disclose a $60,000 payment from
Monsanto. You see, the court case that the fraudulent 1997 study
was intended to influence was the one made famous by the movie
Erin Brockovich and Fumento has made frequent attacks on Brockovich (or Crockovich as he likes to call her). In the most recent one he writes:

Further, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicology web site, “No data were located in the available literature that suggested that chromium-6 is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure.” Indeed, “Exposure to chromium-6 in tap water via all plausible routes of exposure,” even in extremely high concentrations, concluded “the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, poses no “acute or chronic health hazard to humans.”

Why does the EPA’s site say that? Waldman reports:

The 1997 article began to influence scientific views. In 2000, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry updated its chromium profile, adding a paragraph about the 1997 study. The passage concluded with the concept Dr. Zhang had pointedly rejected in his memo to ChemRisk. The entry said the 1997 study’s authors “commented that these more recent analyses of the data probably reflect lifestyle or environmental factors, rather than exposure to chromium(VI).”

Soon other bodies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Health Services, also cited the second study to that effect.

What about the conclusion of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health? Well, Fumento presents it as the conclusion of the journal, but it was the conclusion of the authors of the paper. And the first author, Dennis Paustenbach, who founded ChemRisk and was an expert witness for PG&E in the Brockovich case. The paper states:

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) primarily funded the research described in this article, at a cost in excess of $1 million.

Note to Fumento: that’s a disclosure. Is it really “impracticable” for you to have one?

But what of the conclusion that chromium-6 in drinking water is not a carcinogen? Well the paper just cites a 2002 paper, also in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health with Paustenbach as an author. And the 2002 paper says:

in the 1997 follow-up study, the authors reported that there was not a
statistical relationship between total cancer incidences, stomach cancer incidence,
or lung cancer incidence and exposure to Cr(VI) in drinking water.
The villages with the highest cancer incidences were distant from the plant
and had lower drinking-water concentrations (i.e., inverse dose-response
relationship) (Zhang & Li, 1997). As a result, the authors concluded that
Cr(VI) was probably not the cause of elevated cancer incidence in the total
population, but that the excess in disease likely reflected lifestyle or other
environmental factors. … it is noteworthy that among this very large population
(nearly 10,000 persons and 100,000 person-yr at risk) with very high exposures,
an increased risk of cancer could not be observed.

Nice. Not only does the 1997 study (secretly written by ChemRisk) retract Zhang’s previous finding, it proves that chromium-6 in drinking water is not a carcinogen.

So that’s how it’s done. Cook up a result, fraudulently publish it, cite the fraudulent paper, cite that paper and then Fumento injects into the disinformation cycle, where it will circulate forever.

My thanks to Pinko Punko for getting me a copy of the Paustenbach paper.


  1. #1 Pinko Punko
    February 1, 2006

    Something told me that was what that paper was about. I was going to go toilet paper chemrisk’s offices, but something tells me they were probably all astroturf, and never really at the address they listed at all. I wonder what a lit search for chemrisk would turn up? A company who’s entire purpose is to study health problems related to lawsuits? Seems like there is no financial motive whatsoever for the company to turn up scientific evidence contra their employers’ cases. But that’s just speculation, lest I be accused of anything.

    Thanks for the write up, Tim, as usual very much appreciate your work. And kisses to Mikey F. if Tracy stops by.

  2. #2 Harald Korneliussen
    February 1, 2006

    Typo in first sentence, you don’t say what Chromium 6 is linked to…

  3. #3 Tim Lambert
    February 1, 2006

    Fixed. Thanks.

  4. #4 Paul Crowley
    February 1, 2006

    I got lost trying to follow this, and had to read the other summary, because to a first glance “1987” and “1997” look the same. It would help a lot if your first bullet point read something like:

    1. Zhang did not write the later 1997 study published under his name.

  5. #5 Jack Lacton
    February 1, 2006

    It is unfortunate that PG&E stooped to such depths in this case, as it detracted from the reality of their defence. Faced with a fraudulent claim from a firm well known for the tactic it responded with its own fraud. In subsequent cases it (and others) didn’t use the same tactic to respond to the outrageous claims made against it and successfully defended themselves in court, something they unwisely chose not to do in the Brokovich case.

  6. #6 Tim Lambert
    February 1, 2006

    Thanks Paul, I reworded it slightly.

  7. #7 Steve Munn
    February 1, 2006

    I think you now have enough material to write a very interesting book on shonks like Lott, Fumento and Milloy.

  8. #8 Anonymous
    February 4, 2006

    Strong stuff. Milloy is taking a real beating lately for his financial ties.

    This Brockovitch character. Where is his (her?) funding from? Should we believe him or is he corrupted by money?

  9. #9 Ian Gould
    February 4, 2006

    Brockovich was a trial lawyer operating on a contingency basis. Her financial interest in the issue was readily apparent – she didn’t falsely pose as a disinterested neutral observer.

    She acted as an advocate for her client – and won.

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