Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Chrome plated fraud

In December we posted on a Wall Street Journal article about how a high priced corporate consultant (I hesitate to say, scientist) essentially ghost wrote an article which he signed for a now deceased Chinese doctor, apparently retracting earlier work the doctor had done showing exposure to chromium-VI was a risk factor for cancer. The orignal paper was some of the work relied on in the famous Erin Brockovich case featured in the movie starring Julia Roberts.

The Environmental Working Group, one of the environmental movement's more effective watchdog groups was all over the case and their efforts are bearing spectacular results.
In a real-life epilogue to "Erin Brockovich," a respected medical journal will retract a fraudulent article written and placed by a science-for-hire consulting firm whose CEO sits on a key federal toxics panel. The retraction follows a six- month internal review by the journal, prompted by an Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation.

The July issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM), the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, will carry a retraction of a 1997 article published under the byline of two Chinese scientists, JianDong Zhang and ShuKun Li.

The article appeared to be a reversal of an earlier study by Zhang that found a significant association between chromium pollution of drinking water and higher rates of stomach cancer in villages in rural northeast China. Since its publication, the fraudulent article has influenced a number of state and federal regulatory decisions on chromium.

"It has been brought to our attention that an article published in JOEM in the April 1997 issue by Zhang and Li failed to meet the journal's published editorial policy in effect at that time," says the retraction, signed by JOEM Editor Dr. Paul Brandt-Rauf and obtained by EWG. "Specifically, financial and intellectual input to the paper by outside parties was not disclosed."


Under the state Public Records Act, EWG obtained and posted online documents from California regulators and court records that showed the article was actually the work of ChemRisk, a San Francisco-based consulting firm whose clients include corporations responsible for chromium pollution. The documents and the story they outline are at


ChemRisk's founder and CEO, Dennis Paustenbach, is a Bush Administration appointee to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control advisory panel on toxic chemicals and environmental health. His firm holds a lucrative contract with the CDC and the Energy Department to investigate radioactive and toxic releases from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

In this case, ChemRisk was working for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), a San Francisco-based utility whose dumping of the industrial chemical chromium-6 had contaminated the drinking water of the small town of Hinkley, Calif. Hinkley residents' lawsuit against the company, which PG&E eventually paid $333 million to settle, was the basis for the film "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts as the legal investigator who uncovered the dumping.

PG&E hired ChemRisk to conduct a study to counter Hinkley residents' claims of cancer and other illnesses from chromium-6 in their water. ChemRisk tracked down Zhang, a retired Chinese government health officer, and paid him about $2,000 for his original data. ChemRisk distorted the data to hide the chromium-cancer link, then wrote, prepared and submitted their "clarification'" to JOEM under Zhang and Li's byline, and over Zhang's written objection. (Environmental Working Group)
This affair is not a tempest in a teapot. It has had real life implications for all of us. California regulators used the fraudulent paper to revise chromium-VI standards for drinking water, on recommendations from a panel upon which Paustenbach sat. And the EPA also used it to allow continued use of chromium as a wood preservative. CDC is refusing to remove Paustenbach as a member of the toxics advisory board or ChemRisk as a contractor.

EWG's coup comes on top of its recent victory to force DuPont to disclose drinking water tests on the teflon ingredient perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA; posts here, here and here) and an earlier unmasking of ABC hack reporter John Stossel, whose use of fraudulent (non-existent) test results in one of his hatchet jobs (on organic food) forced him to make an on-air retraction and apology.

Kudos (once again) to EWG. I'm glad these guys are on our side.