Rachel's Democracy & Health News #842, 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 away.

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.