Chrome-Plated Fraud

How PG&E's Scientists-For-Hire Reversed Findings of Cancer Study

Friday, December 23, 2005

Chrome-Plated Fraud

How PG&E's Scientists-For-Hire Reversed Findings of Cancer Study

A consulting firm hired by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) to fight the "Erin Brockovich" lawsuit distorted data from a Chinese study to plant an article in a scientific journal reversing the study's original conclusion that linked an industrial chemical to stomach cancer, according to documents obtained by Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The chemical was hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6 (commonly abbreviated Cr+6 or Cr VI). In the Brockovich lawsuit, residents of Hinkley, Calif., sued PG&E for dumping chromium-6 in their tap water — the basis for the Julia Roberts film released in 2000. The deception occurred in 1995-97, and before the article's publication PG&E paid $333 million to settle the case, but the point is hardly moot.

The question of whether chromium-6 in drinking water causes cancer is at the center of an ongoing lawsuit against PG&E by residents of another small California town, again represented by Brockovich's law firm. Scientists and regulators — including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — have cited the fraudulent article in research and in setting safety standards. And the consulting firm that produced and placed the article continues to do risk assessments and other projects for corporate and government clients, including the Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the San Francisco-based consultants, ChemRisk, "conceived, drafted, edited and submitted to medical journals" a "clarification" of the Chinese study, according to documents filed in another chromium lawsuit against PG&E. They did so despite a letter of objection from the Chinese scientist who led the original study, calling their reversal of his findings an "inappropriate inference."

Through the state Public Records Act, EWG has obtained from the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) the documents that tell the story. It's a story of science for sale, and of how far some industrial polluters will go to manipulate science for their own interest.

Medical Journal and CDC Urged to Take Action

The fraudulent "study" was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a peer-reviewed publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. EWG has written the journal's editors urging them to set the record straight and bar the scientists who were involved in the deception from its pages.

"The scientific community must be notified that a paper circulating in the published literature is fraudulent, the paper must be retracted, and those responsible for the incident must be appropriately disciplined," EWG's letter to Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine says.

EWG has also written to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which recently renewed ChemRisk's multi-million dollar contract for a key project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, urging the agency to take prompt action against the company.

"ChemRisk's current ... contract must be cancelled and the firm barred from seeking future contracts from the CDC or other government agencies," says EWG's letter to CDC informing them of ChemRisk's ethic violations.

In 1987, Drs. JianDong Zhang and XiLin Li published a study in a Chinese medical journal that found "significant excess of overall cancer mortality" in five rural villages in Liao-Ning province, where the groundwater was contaminated with chromium-6 from a chromium ore processing facility. [1] But ten years later, in April 1997, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) published an article under the byline of Zhang and ShuKun Li (the reason for the different name of the second author is unclear) that reversed that conclusion, stating that the data from Liao-Ning province "do not indicate an association of cancer mortality with exposure to Cr+6 contaminated groundwater." [2]

To all appearances, the 1997 JOEM article was the result of a researcher conducting a more thorough analysis of the original data and revising the findings accordingly, not an uncommon practice in science. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is told in court documents and depositions filed in another lawsuit against PG&E over chromium-6 contamination of drinking water, brought by residents of Kettleman City, Calif., which is scheduled to come trial in early 2006. Kettleman City and Hinkley are the sites of PG&E stations that pump natural gas from a Texas pipeline to California customers. Chromium-6 was used to cool the natural gas, then dumped in unlined ponds which leached the contaminant into groundwater.

ChemRisk 'Study' Concealed Cancer Link

The documents show that ChemRisk employees — with the knowledge of PG&E's attorneys — conducted their own analysis of Zhang and Li's data, deliberately ignoring statistics on cancer in the province that pointed to an association with chromium-6. They then wrote and submitted the article for publication without disclosing that they worked for ChemRisk or that PG&E had paid for the new "study." Zhang, now deceased, was a paid consultant to the project, but the documents suggest his biggest contribution was providing his original data. Nowhere in the published article are the names of the ChemRisk employees who worked on it, or any indication that the paper was part of PG&E's legal defense strategy.

Documents and depositions indicate that most of the work was done by ChemRisk scientists Bill Butler and Tony Ye with help from several other employees. The cover letters and other correspondence with JOEM have not surfaced, but presumably identical correspondence with another journal show how ChemRisk was able to avoid having its connection to the article known. Although Ye typed the cover letter at work, it was printed on plain paper rather than company letterhead; the return address was Ye's home, not his employers' offices. (Before the article was published, Butler and Ye left to form their own company, Environmental Risk Associates, which continued to bill PG&E for work on the article.)

At the time, ChemRisk was a division of McLaren/Hart Environmental Engineering, an international consulting firm that went bankrupt in 2001. Today — under different ownership but the same executive officer — ChemRisk is based in San Francisco with offices in Boston, Pittsburgh, Houston and Boulder, Colo., "providing state-of-the-art toxicology, industrial hygiene, epidemiology, and risk assessment services to organizations that confront public health, occupational health, and environmental challenges." [3]

Among its many corporate and government clients, ChemRisk holds a contract from the Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Under this contract, believed to be for 5 years and $5 million †1, ChemRisk will analyze hundreds of thousands of documents accounting for all chemical and radioactive materials released from Los Alamos National Laboratory in six decades of nuclear weapons work. [4]

photo of dennis paustenbach, chemrisk president and founder

The founder and president of ChemRisk is Dennis Paustenbach, who was CEO of McLaren/Hart when it owned ChemRisk. [5] Paustenbach has made a career out of consulting and testifying on behalf of dozens of big polluters including PG&E, ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical. [6,7] Independent scientists blasted his 2002 appointment to a CDC committee that assesses the health effects of chemicals as part of a Bush Administration pattern of packing environmental panels with industry-friendly experts. [8] The Newark Star-Ledger, in an investigation of Paustenbach's role in weakening chromium standards in New Jersey, said he "rarely met a chemical he didn't like." [7]

Getting to the bottom of ChemRisk's misdeeds is not just an intriguing scientific detective story. Zhang and Li's original work remains the only study of people ingesting chromium-6 in their drinking water. [9] The JOEM article reversing its findings was cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a 2001 assessment of whether chromium-6 should be allowed in a wood preservative, and by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in a 2000 report that said elevated cancer rates in Liao-Ning "probably reflect lifestyle or environmental factors rather than exposure to chromium." [10, 11]

Most significantly, the article was cited prominently by a scientific panel whose 2001 report forced California health officials to revise a recommendation for how much chromium-6 should be allowed in drinking water. [12] The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) had recommended a level based on the assumption that chromium-6 in drinking water causes stomach cancer, but the panel pointed to the JOEM article as evidence to the contrary. Not coincidentally, Dennis Paustenbach was a member of the panel, although he resigned after his ties to chromium polluters were exposed. [13] (OEHHA's revised recommendation for chromium-6 in drinking water is scheduled to be released this fall and will not rely on the discredited 1997 "study". [14])


†1 CDC would not release the terms of the contract without a Freedom of Information Act request which could not be completed under deadline. This figure comes from a New Mexico source close to the project.