By David Michaels
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal published last December (by Peter Waldman, 12/23/05), product defense experts at ChemRisk pulled off a particularly audacious scam on behalf of Pacific Gas and Electric, the California utility that was being sued for contaminating drinking water with hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen.
ChemRisk’s scientists went to China to obtain the raw data of a 1987 study that had implicated chromium-polluted water in high cancer rates, paying the lead author $2,000, re-analyzing his data, changing the results to exonerate chromium and republishing the study still under his name in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM), without obtaining his permission and without acknowledging that ChemRisk had done virtually all the work on the new study.
Following the exposé, the editor of JOEM retracted the paper (July 2006 issue).
Now the story has resurfaced, with the paper’s second author claiming (according to her attorney) that the Wall Street Journal’s coverage was “false and defamatory,” and demanding a retraction and apology. She is also demanding that JOEM withdraw their retraction, and re-publish the original article.
Neither the WSJ or JOEM are backing down. Here are the details:
Hexavalent chromium, or Cr+6, is a known carcinogen used in chrome plating and in the production of metal alloys and pigments; PG&E used it to cool natural gas. While it is acknowledged to be carcinogenic when inhaled, its danger when ingested in drinking water is more controversial.
A 1987 paper by Dr. Zhang JianDong reported a link between hexavalent chromium in drinking water and elevated cancer rates in the JinZhou area of China. The study was problematic for electric utility PG&E and other companies defending themselves against lawsuits related to their dumping of hexavalent chromium.
Dr. Shukun Li was listed as the second author of the 1997 JOEM paper that reversed the earlier findings of lead author, Dr. Zhang. In contrast to the first paper, the 1997 article reported “no clear statistical increase in cancer mortality in the three villages adjacent to the source of contamination,” and chromium-using companies were quick to use it in legal defenses and to argue against stricter regulation of hexavalent chromium in water.
The 1987 study reported that a significant excess of cancer mortality was observed in an area where groundwater was contaminated with hexavalent chromium. The 1997 article did not dispute that the contaminated area showed higher death rates from certain cancers; it merely “clarified” that cancer death rates from different sites in the contaminated area were not correlated with the degree of exposure to hexavalent chromium.
In December 2005, the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Waldman reported that, judging by testimony and exhibits from a lawsuit against PG&E, this study was actually conceived, drafted, edited and submitted to medical journals by science consultants working for PG&E.
The Environmental Working Group investigated this case and produced a report entitled “Chrome-Plated Fraud: How PG&E’s Scientists-for-Hire Reversed Findings of Cancer Study.” It relied on numerous documents used in hexavalent chromium lawsuits, and has made several of them available on its website. Among them are depositions from ChemRisk employees who worked on the Zhang article, and they give sworn testimony related to their work on the 1997 study.
What is not in dispute is that the ChemRisk division of consulting company McLaren/Hart was paid by PG&E; that it in turn paid Dr. Zhang approximately $2,000; that members of the ChemRisk staff played active roles in revising and submitting the article to two journals; and that it did not disclose these facts to either of the journals. In his retraction of the article, JOEM Editor Paul Brandt-Rauf stated that the article authors had failed to disclose financial and intellectual input by outside parties, and that the decision to retract was “based solely on the violation of the journal’s policy regarding disclosure.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Li takes issue with Peter Waldman’s article, which portrayed the article by Zhang and Li as having been written by ChemRisk. She writes to the Wall Street Journal:
The Journal claim that the 1997 study was conceived and written by the American scientific consultants is completely false. To the contrary, the American scientific consultants functioned as peer reviewers and helped Dr. Zhang and I get the new article published in an American scientific journal. They also took Dr. Zhang’s work and translated it into English at Dr. Zhang’s request. Dr. Zhang approved every word and designated authorship of the article that was submitted to the JOEM. I have been informed that you are in possession of hundreds of pages of documents that prove this is true.
In depositions, two of the ChemRisk consultants involved with the production of the article state that they never had contact with Dr. Li, raising questions about the veracity of either her position or theirs.
In his article, Waldman makes very specific statements about the roles that Zhang and ChemRisk played in the study. One particularly important element he reports is that Dr. Zhang did not agree with the conclusion that “lifestyle of the residents and other environmental factors unrelated to chromium contamination” were a likely explanation for the overall higher death rate for the areas contaminated by hexavalent chromium. He instructed ChemRisk to use a vaguer statement mentioning several possible variables, but the report as published concluded by saying “these results suggest that lifestyle or environmental factors not related to the Cr+6 contamination are the likely source of the variation in these cancer rates.”
Waldman also reports that ChemRisk scientists acknowledged that they might not have prepared a Chinese translation of the final article, and a draft that was translated into Chinese did not include certain key statements that appeared in the final draft.
The court documents and the reports from Waldman and EWG present a compelling case that Dr. Zhang had limited input into the study and that ChemRisk played a major role in determining its conclusions. If Dr. Li has documents proving that “Dr. Zhang approved every word” of the study, she should post them online for the scientific community to view.
Until that time, we can only continue to think that PG&E paid ChemRisk to manufacture a study that would bolster its assertion that ingested hexavalent chromium has not been shown to increase cancer risk.
A Note on Related Scandal: The website of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) has a case study of the how the chromium industry, with the assistance of product defense scientists associated with ChemRisk, Exponent, Inc and ENVIRON, attempted to prevent or delay the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration from issuing a badly needed standard to protect workers from breathing airborne hexavalent chromium, a well-documented lung carcinogen.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.