Rachel's Democracy & Health News #842  [Printer-friendly version]
February 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The story of Erin Brockovich centered around
chromium pollution, and it seemed to tell of a great victory for
people who had been harmed. But underneath that story lies a deeper
tale of the systematic corruption of science for the purpose of
undermining the U.S. system of chemical regulation -- and this is not
a story of victory by the people. Despite heroic work by dedicated
citizen activists, the corporations may be winning.]

By Peter Montague

During 2005, in a four-part series of front-page articles, the Wall
Street Journal (WSJ) blew the whistle on the utterly-broken system for
regulating chemicals in the U.S. In recent weeks, we have examined
the first three parts of the WSJ series (see here, here, and
here). Today we examine part 4 -- in many ways the most profoundly
troubling article of all.

In part 4 of its series, WSJ reveals that U.S. regulatory standards
for a potent cancer-causing chemical, chromium-6, were substantially
relaxed as a direct result of a 20-year plan devised and carried out
by a small group of "hired gun" consultants who intentionally planted
false information about chromium-6 in the scientific literature,
misled regulators, and violated most of the ethical standards upon
which the credibility of science itself rests. Instead of being
punished for these profoundly anti-social acts, the consultants were
given lucrative contracts by the U.S. Department of Energy and the
president of the firm was appointed to an advisory board of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

This story has been thoroughly investigated and fully documented not
only by Peter Waldman in the Wall Street Journal, but also by hard-
hitting, gutsy reports by the Environmental Working Group in
Washington, D.C., and by the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger's top
environmental reporter, Alexander Lane, who broke the story first.

The story begins with Erin Brockovich, the paralegal played by Julia
Roberts in the movie named after her. For years PG&E, a California
utility, dumped large quantities of chromium-6 into unlined pits in
the ground, which subsequently leaked chromium-6 into underground
drinking water supplies in the town of Hinkley. Many people grew ill.

Chromium-6 (or "hexavalent chromium") is a very toxic form of the
shiny metal ("chrome") used for plating automobile bumpers, making
stainless steel, and so on. The other form, Chromium-3 is a relatively
benign species of chromium (in tiny amounts it is an essential
nutrient for humans). Chromium-6 on the other hand is a potent
carcinogen -- some say it is the second most potent carcinogen after
dioxin, causing lung cancer and perhaps nasal cancer, stomach cancer,
lymph cancer, and cancer of the blood-forming cells.

As the Erin Brockovich story unfolded in California, a related story
unfolded on the other side of the continent, in New Jersey, where
three firms had spent the first half of the 20th century dumping
millions of tons of chromium wastes in Hudson and Essex Counties, just
across the Hudson River from New York City. According to the
companies, these wastes were 86% chromium-3 mixed with 14% chromium-6.
During the '50s and '60s, as awareness of toxic waste began to grow,
the three firms got rid of their toxic problem by donating chromium
waste free to anyone who showed up with a dump truck. As a result,
chromium waste was used to shape foundations, pave roads, fill
wetlands and build sewers. Little league ball fields and school yards
were covered with it. High-end golf courses were contoured with it.
Housing developments were built on it. In Hudson and Essex Counties,
at least 189 sites are contaminated with chromium-6. Many of those
sites are now inhabited by poor people and people of color. Did the
companies know chromium-6 was toxic? Old timers tell how they used to
show new guys a trick -- they would put a dime in one nostril and pull
it out the other. Chromium had eaten away the cartilage between their
nostrils, which a doctor would call "perforated nasal septum," a
classic symptom of chromium poisoning.

In the 1990s, thanks in part to Erin Brockovich, PG&E was facing
hundreds of millions of dollars in liability suits from 650 plaintiffs
who believed they had been made sick by chromium-6. So lawyers for
PG&E hired a man with science degrees -- one would hesitate to call
him a scientist -- named Dennis Paustenbach, who runs a company
called Chemrisk. Chemrisk comes to the aid of large firms when they
get caught poisoning people with toxic chemicals. Across the continent
in New Jersey, the chromium polluters in New Jersey hired the same
Dennis Paustenbach to help them evade liability for their misdeeds.

In California, despite Mr. Paustenbach's best efforts, PG&E settled
the case with 650 Hinkley residents for $333 million in 1994. and just
a few weeks ago PG&E settled with a second group of Hinkley
residents for $295 million.

But in New Jersey the outcome was different. A 15-year campaign by Mr.
Paustenbach and his colleagues at ChemRisk paid off handsomely for the
polluters and for their friends within N.J. state government, where
the political leadership (both Republican and Democrat) always seemed
to side with the chromium polluters against the citizens, according to
an investigative series by reporter Alex Lane of the Newark Star-
Ledger (available here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.)

When Mr. Paustenbach and his toxic trouble-shooters began work in New
Jersey, the allowable standard for chromium-6 in N.J. soil was 10
parts per million (ppm). When they finished, the N.J. standard was
6,100 parts per million -- the most lax standard anywhere in the U.S.
Mr. Paustenbach proudly estimates that he saved the New Jersey
polluters $1 billion in cleanup costs. In return for this boon, the
three firms only had to contribute $400,000 in perfectly-legal bribes
and blandishments intended to influence N.J. political officials. So
for every dollar invested in corrupting the N.J. political process,
these firms received $2500 in reduced liability for their chromium
wastes. By any measure, this is an excellent return on investment.

Some of the politicans involved made out like bandits, too. At the
same time Mr. Paustenbach was buying favors for his three chromium
clients (Honeywell, PPG Industries, and Maxus Energy Corp.) N.J.
officials were using some of Mr. Paustenbach's ideas to devise a
comprehensive plan for dealing with the 12,000 toxic wastes sites that
dot N.J. like a bad case of the measles. Starting with Governor Jim
Florio (Democrat), accelerating under Governor Christie Todd Whitman
(Republican), and continuing under governor James McGreevey
(Democrat), N.J. decided to "solve" its embarrassing and costly toxic
waste problems by "capping" them with a plastic tarp, a thin layer of
asphalt, a sidewalk, a school, a low-cost housing project -- whatever
provided the quickest and cheapest way of hiding toxicants in plain
site. Actual removal of toxicants was out, sweeping toxicants under
the rug was in -- and still is.

All the states "developers" were exceedingly grateful for the wisdom
displayed by N.J. state officials and the developers expressed their
gratitude through the perfectly-legal bribes known as "campaign
contributions." As the "capping" solution to toxics made all kinds of
new land available for re-development, the developers generously cut
the politicians in on their deals. Since leaving office, the two
Democratic ex-governors have been engaged in helping people build on
contaminated sites (which are officially no longer defined as
"contaminated" because the contaminants have been hidden beneath a
plastic tarp or some other fig leaf). And of course the White House
itself recognized Christie Todd Whitman for her service to developers
-- she was appointed head of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
where she reprised her friendly-to-polluters performance on a national
scale. She has since parlayed that prestigious national job into a new
career in N.J. where she is now an "environmental consultant" to
developers. One hand washes the other but the dirt never seems to go

Of course such political shenanigans are nothing new. What's new is
the way Dennis Paustenbach's crew chose to change the science of
chromium toxicity. As described by the Wall Street Journal and the
Environmental Working Group, Mr. Paustenbach set out to "salt" the
peer-reviewed scientific literature with falsehoods about chromium,
and he succeeded.

The WSJ told the story Dec. 23, 2005:

"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."

What an extraordinary story -- a Chinese researcher documents cancer
from chromium-6 drinking-water exposures in five villages. He wins an
award from the Chinese government for his work. His study is
translated into English and begins to influence regulatory decisions
in California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Then suddenly 10 years
later, without collecting any new data, the Chinese researcher
recants, saying that his data really showed no cancer attributable to
chromium-6 exposures. Gullible U.S. regulators breathe a sigh of
relief because now they can stop worrying about chromium-6
contaminaing drinking water -- a serious concern in at least 37 states
across the U.S.

The only problem with this story is that the Chinese researcher did
not write the second study, WSJ tells us, even though it was published
under his name. The second study, recanting the first, was
"conceived, drafted, edited, and submitted to medical journals" by
Chemrisk, Dennis Paustenbach's hired-gun consulting firm.

Under the leadership of governor Christie Todd Whitman, New Jersey
environmental officials accepted the bogus study without question, and
went on to give away the store to the chromium polluters, changing New
Jersey's allowable chromium-6 level in soil from 10 ppm to 6100 ppm.
California officials on the other hand smelled a rat. In its study,
"Chrome-Plated Fraud," the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports
that a California government scientist, Jay Beaumont, found "several
notable limitations and oddities in the" 1997 recantation paper.

Beaumont eventually learned of the whole sorry fraud and itemized 13
ways in which Mr. Paustenbach's Chemrisk firm committed ethical or
scientific breaches, including:

** Failure to disclose who wrote the manuscript: The 1997 recantation
was composed by hacks employed by Paustenbach, but Dr. Zhang and and
one of his colleagues were identified as the sole authors.

** Failure to disclose that the study was funded by PG&E.

** Falsely stating in the published paper that stomach cancer rates
weren't available for the province surrounding the 5 villages. The
data were in fact readily available but they inconveniently showed
that chromium-6 was tightly associated with elevated cancer levels, so
Mr. Paustenbach's minions omitted the data, then lied saying the data
weren't available.

** Basing analysis on the level of contamination detected in the wells
in 1965, knowing that by the end of that year the picture of
contamination in the wells had dramatically changed.

** Ignoring useful data that were readily available. Misrepresenting
the study design in several ways to make it seem stronger.

** Failing to disclose key facts about the data presented.

The Environmental Working Group goes on to say, "The lies, errors, and
misrepresentations in the 1997 JOEM [Journal of Occupational and
Environmental Medicine] article don't stop even there. EWG's review of
court documents and depositions show that several of the high
chromium-6 concentrations reported in Zhang's original 1987 study were
left out of the 1997 paper. Worse, a graphic reporting chromium-6
concentrations in the wells of the Chinese village most affected by
chromium contamination also erroneously shows the chromium-6 levels of
the wells in a different, less contaminated village."

Even after the story of the scientific deception broke, New Jersey DEP
failed to act. The then-DEP-Commissioner Bradley Campbell did his
best to keep the lid on. For example, after the Newark Star-Ledger
broke the story of the Paustenbach's scientific deception, Campbell
would not allow reporters to talk to DEP staff responsibile for
chromium cleanups.

But eventually citizen pressure built up to intolerable levels and
Campbell had to act. Between them, the Newark Star-Ledger and the
Interfaith Community Organization in Jersey City put such heat on
Campbell that he finally relented and appointed a 24-member scientific
study group to evaluate the chromium mess in northern New Jersey. The
commission eventually concluded that, yes, DEP had allowed the three
chromium polluters to leave unsafe levels of chromium all across
Hudson and Essex Counties. But Campbell then refused to take further
action. It got so bad that two members of the commission lodged a
formal complaint with U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency],
asking the federal government to step in to protect New Jersey
citizens from chromium. Fortunately, when the new governor was
elected, Campbell was not re-hired as DEP Commissioner, so there's
still hope that something can be done to force the chromium polluters
to do a proper cleanup, returning N.J. to natural background levels of
chromium in soil.

But of course the issues raised by this sordid tale go far beyond mere
political manipulation of scientific advisory committees. If this
were an isolated story, we might chalk it up to one individual
committed to undermining the scientific enterprise for personal gain.
This would be comforting. But it isn't the case. If you have been
reading a newspaper during the past 5 or 6 years, you know that
scientific fraud has become common. It has now become standard
operating procedure for corporations to ghost-write medical and
scientific papers, then pay scientists or physicians to allow the
work to be published under their name. The Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health are
riddled with scientists who have conflicts of interest -- they are
making money from companies whose financial wellbeing depends on
research being conducted by their agencies. In 2004, the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) received a record number
of complaints of scientific misconduct -- 50% higher than the number
of complaints in 2003. As we documented in Rachel's News #824 and
#825, manipulating scientific information for the purpose of
manufacturing doubt -- intending to paralyze the reglatory system --
is now an industry unto itself.

This story raises the possibility that corporate scientific
malfeasance has now grown so bold, so well-financed and so generally-
accepted as standard operating procedure that no unit of government
can muster the will, the staff, the effort or the courage it would
take to set things right. Maybe corporate power has now outstripped
the ability of any government to rein it in.

As a result, we must now ask ourselves whether, under modern
conditions, it is possible to imagine a workable system of regulation
to protect public health from the chemical industry -- or any other
industry premised on dangerous technologies (biotech, nanotech,
weapons in space, nuclear power, etc.)

Is a workable system of regulation even imaginable under modern
conditions? If you think the answer is "yes," we'd like to hear your
ideas. If the answer is "No," then many of us would have to
acknowledge that we have been wasting our time devising new regulatory
approaches that could never, in fact, work within the current
framework of political power. Therefore we would have to admit we have
been -- and are -- working on the wrong problem(s). And I include my
own work in this.

This is a troubling prospect, but one supported by a very large and
rapidly growing body of evidence.