The July issue of the 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, written 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."
In an email to the JOEM editorial board, Brandt-Rauf acknowledged that for legal reasons the retraction is "carefully worded and kept to the barest minimum of facts." But EWG's investigation, confirmed by a Wall Street Journal report in December 2005, found that Zhang and Li were not the actual authors of the article.
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 www.ewg.org.
"In order to ensure continued faith in the scientific process such serious breaches of ethics cannot be tolerated," EWG Senior Vice President Richard Wiles wrote to Brandt-Rauf in December. "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."
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.
Zhang has since died. But JOEM located his co-author, ShuKun Li, who agreed that the article should be retracted.
Zhang's original work remains the only study of people ingesting chromium-6 in their drinking water. The JOEM article reversing its findings was cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in allowing continued use of chromium in a wood preservative, and by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in a report that discounted chromium-6 as an oral carcinogen.
Most significantly, the fraudulent article was cited 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. A member of that panel was ChemRisk's Paustenbach, who has made a career out of consulting and testifying on behalf of major industrial polluters including PG&E, ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical.
Independent scientists blasted Paustenbach's 2002 appointment to the Board of Scientific Counselors for CDC's National Center for Environmental Health as part of a Bush Administration pattern of packing environmental panels with industry-friendly experts. EWG has provided CDC with documentation of ChemRisk's fraud in the Zhang case and demanded that Paustenbach be removed from his post when his term expires in June, but CDC has refused to take action.
"It is abundantly clear that CDC's contractor, ChemRisk, does not have the necessary scientific or ethical integrity to engender public trust," EWG's Wiles wrote to CDC Director Julie Gerberding in March. "It is also clear that ChemRisk founder and president Dennis Paustenbach has been directly involved in the firm's unethical behavior."
EWG has earned a reputation as a watchdog of suspect science. When the group reported to the EPA a failure by DuPont to disclose internal company tests of drinking water and workers for a toxic chemical used to make Teflon, the government sued the company and in 2005 extracted the largest administrative settlement in history for such offenses.
In 2000, EWG caught ABC News' John Stossel reporting nonexistent test results in an "investigation" critical of organic food that was broadcast on the network's 20/20 magazine program. The disclosure forced a rare on-air retraction and apology from Stossel.
EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C., that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.