Study Tied Pollutant to Cancer; Then Consultants Got Hold of It

PG&E doesn't give up easily. The energy company, made famous in the Erin Brockovich movie, paid a consultant, ChemRisk, over $1.5 million dollars - some of that money 'somehow' ended up reversing the conclusions of a 2 decade long study on the cancer causing effects of Chromium-6.
Hmmm. - Study Tied Pollutant to Cancer; Then Consultants Got Hold of It

During China's Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, a city doctor named Zhang JianDong was banished to the countryside of northeastern China. He arrived to a public-health emergency.

A giant smelter was spilling large amounts of chromium waste into the groundwater. Well water was turning yellow. People were developing mouth sores, nausea and diarrhea. Dr. Zhang spent the next two decades treating and studying the residents of five villages with chromium-polluted water.

In 1987, he published a study saying they were dying of cancer at higher rates than people nearby. He earned a national award in China for his research. In America, federal scientists translated it into English, and regulatory agencies began citing it as evidence that a form of the metal called chromium-6 might cause cancer if ingested.

Then in 1997, Dr. Zhang, in retirement, appeared to retract his life's work. A “clarification and further analysis” published under his name in a U.S. medical journal said there was no cancer link to chromium in the villages after all. This new conclusion, like the earlier one, soon found its way into U.S. regulatory assessments, as evidence that ingested chromium wasn't really a cancer risk.

Yet Dr. Zhang didn't write the clarification, judging by voluminous testimony and exhibits in a lawsuit in a California state court. The court papers indicate that the second study was conceived, drafted, edited and submitted to medical journals by science consultants working for the lawsuit's defendant, a utility company being sued for alleged chromium pollution. The consultants paid Dr. Zhang about $2,000 for research assistance on the second study.

That study didn't deny that the polluted area had a higher rate of cancer deaths. But it said factors other than chromium were the likely cause. This was a statement that Dr. Zhang, now dead, had explicitly disputed in a letter to the consultants. Yet he and a Chinese colleague appeared, to anyone reading the report, to be its sole authors. The litigation consultants didn't disclose their role to the journal that published it.

Erin Brockovich
Erin Brockovich

The China story is part of a more familiar one, that of Erin Brockovich, the feisty paralegal (played by Julia Roberts in the movie named after her) who helped a California town's residents win $333 million from a utility that had leaked chromium into their water. In 1995, arbitrators hearing the Brockovich case asked the defendant, PG&E Corp., about the original Zhang study. Lawyers for PG&E then assigned a consulting firm to look into it, telling the firm, as a former lawyer for PG&E recalls, “to follow up, to see if they could make contact and get some of the underlying data.”

The consulting firm was ChemRisk. It was founded 18 years ago by a prominent toxicologist, Dennis Paustenbach, who has consulted for dozens of companies and serves as a Bush appointee on a board of scientific advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a tally in a textbook he edited, he helped save industry hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs for chromium pollution in New Jersey. His firm was paid more than $7 million for this help, Dr. Paustenbach has testified.

...The published report then went further and stated flatly that the higher rate of cancer death in the five villages was “not a result of the contaminated water.” Neither stomach-cancer nor lung-cancer deaths “indicated a positive association with hexavalent chromium concentration in well water,” the published article said. Neither of those statements was in the draft that was translated into Chinese for Dr. Zhang to read.

Did Dr. Zhang change his mind and sign on to these conclusions? Documents and testimony by former ChemRisk scientists show that ChemRisk drafted the text and graphics of the final report in English, on ChemRisk computers, three months after translating the earlier draft into Chinese. Dr. Zhang, who died in his late 60s in 1999, couldn't speak English, the ChemRisk scientists testified.

In depositions, former ChemRisk scientists acknowledged they might not have translated the final article into Chinese. But they maintained, and continue to assert, that Dr. Zhang was aware of its contents from phone conversations and from the early draft he did read. Tony Ye, a former ChemRisk scientist who speaks Chinese and served as the liaison with Dr. Zhang, testified that he kept Dr. Zhang “informed” of everything ChemRisk concluded for the article and that it was published with Dr. Zhang's “agreement.”

Dr. Zhang's son, Zhang Hongzheng, bristles at the idea that his father would wittingly have retracted his award-winning 1987 findings. Dr. Zhang was “sure of the relations” between cancer and chromium-6, says the son, who says he helped his late father in the research. “My father's 1987 article won an award. It's impossible that he would have overthrown what he said. That's like saying his previous painstaking effort was a total waste,” the son said in an interview.

How do corporate executives sleep at night? I guess not many of them believe in an afterlife, or having any sort of moral responsibility while alive: dollar trumps all.

PG&E says its role should have been acknowledged when the article was published. “The lesson in this case is that it's in everyone's interest to have full transparency,” said a spokesman for the utility. He added that “nothing published in the scientific literature since [1997] challenges Dr. Zhang's research and conclusions.” PG&E paid ChemRisk about $1.5 million in all for litigation support, according to Dr. Paustenbach's testimony. Other court documents said that included about $20,000 for the China research.
Dr. Paustenbach, the ChemRisk founder, served on this panel. He resigned before its report was issued because of a public flap over a perceived conflict of interest, since his firm was a consultant to chromium defendant PG&E.

When the panel's report came out, Dr. Paustenbach emailed it to his former colleague Dr. Kerger, with a note: “Buy a good bottle of wine, pull up a chair...and then read this. Then, say to yourself 'Yep, I really finally did something good for society.' ”

California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment had also begun looking into the 1997 study, however, and assigned an epidemiologist to review it. He found several “limitations and oddities,” he later wrote. For instance, the study called for “further follow-up of this cohort,” implying that it was, itself, a follow-up of a cohort of villagers, which would make it a particularly rigorous kind of study. In reality, there was no follow-up of individuals.

The state epidemiologist, Jay Beaumont, described in internal memos what he suspected were improprieties in the 1997 study. He listed them under the heading “The Case for Scientific Publication Fraud,” including: “ChemRisk did virtually all the work and didn't mention themselves. Zhang maybe did no new work, yet is first author”; and, “Acknowledgement of funding not made.”


Ore-processing plants in northern New Jersey once produced millions of tons of chromium waste that was used as landfill throughout Hudson and Essex counties near New York City. Chromium-6 has turned up in Jersey City Little League diamonds and, this fall, near the Weehawken-Manhattan ferry terminal.

ChemRisk's Dr. Paustenbach has been instrumental over the years in persuading New Jersey regulators to ease cleanup standards for the metal. An article he co-wrote was cited in a recent New Jersey report that concluded it still wasn't known whether chromium-6 is carcinogenic when ingested. One plank of the Paustenbach argument: that Dr. Zhang's “follow-up study” didn't find a cancer link.

New Jersey's chief risk analyst, Alan Stern, says he's aware Dr. Zhang published an earlier study tying chromium in water to cancer deaths -- the study that California regulators now believe is accurate. But, he says, “we haven't read it because it's in Chinese.”


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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on December 23, 2005 10:40 AM.

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