Saturday, December 24, 2005

To Cause Cancer, Or Not To Cause Cancer: (Hint: Wall St. Journal says it depends on who's funding the study)

Here I am, trying to have a nice vacation, read a novel or two, keep blogging to a minimum and what do I see in the Airport store (after missing our flight to California due to gargantuan lines and too few workers - -thanks United), but headline in that pinko radical, anti-busines publication, the Wall St. Journal, entitled: “Study Tied Pollutant to Cancer; Then Consultants Got Hold of It.”

How could I resist?

Now, I wonder what the American people would say if you did a poll of the American people, asking them whether they thought that regulatory protections addressing chemical pollution of our water, air and workplaces was based only on objective scientific studies by scientists sincerely interested in the truth.

I honestly don’t know, but if the answer to that question was “yes,” they’d be WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, according the Journal.

This is a story about a Chinese scientist, Dr. Zhang JianDong who did a groundbreaking study showing that Chinese villagers who drank water contaminated with chromium 6 were dying at a significantly higher rate of cancer than unexposed people. But ten years later, and article published under Zhang’s name reversed that finding, concluding that the cancers were not caused by chromium, but by the villagers’ “lifestyles” and other factors.

Chromium-6 is well-known to cause lung cancer when inhaled, but its role in causing cancer when swallowed is more controversial.

How can we explain this turnaround? New data? Better analysis? No, the main factor seems to be that the second article was written by a company called ChemRisk, at the request PG&E Corp, the utility that had been forced to pay $33 million to a California town, after residents, assisted by “feisty paralegal” Erin Brockovich, for leaking chromium into their water. PG&E is again facing litigation by residents who accuse the utility of polluting their water with chromium.

Although the second Zhang article was written by ChemRisk, it was “signed” by Zhang after his death, even though evidence shows that he never agreed with ChemRisk’s conclusions. Then the “new” study was submitted to (and later published by) the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine signed by a ChemRisk scientist who did not reveal that he worked for ChemRisk.

The implications of this scientific fraud, as the Journal points out, are not limited to a single lawsuit – it affects the strength of numerous state and federal regulations designed to protect people against chemical contamination. For example, after the updated 1997 study, the U.S.Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that the Chinese cancers reflect lifestyle factors, an assertion that was rejected by Zhang.

Then in 2001 a special panel of the California Department of Health Services concluded, based on the 1997 study, that there was no need to tighten chromium-6 standards. One of the members of that panel was Dr. Dennis Paustenbach, who founded ChemRisk. He resigned from the panel before the report was issued due to a “perceived” conflict of interest.

But then the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment assigned an epidemiologist to look at both studies again. He concluded that chromium exposure was in fact correlated with higer cancer rates, causing the state to set aside the 2001 California DHS report that blamed lifestyle. And based on those new findings and other studies, California is soon expected to propose a safe limit for chromium-6 in drinking water, the nation’s first such limit on chromium 6.

The implications: the new standard could compel widespread cleanup. According to the Journal, 1,200 water sources in California have chromium-6 levels that are higher than the expected standard. Paustenbach has also been instrumental (and richly rewarded) in convincing New Jersey regulatory authorities to ease chromium-6 cleanup standards – based on the 1997 “lifestyle” study.

Stay tuned for more.

One ironic sidenote. You may recall my post a couple of weeks ago about the Wall St. Journal editorial page attack on Dr. Barry Levy. A letter to the editor of the Journal by Elizabeth M. Whelan, M.D., President of the corporate-supported American Council on Science and Health, mentioned that Erin Brockovich is "widely viewed as the poster child for junk science." I'm sure the Journal will now want to write a letter to Dr. Whelan, requesting an official retraction. I'd also like to suggeset that Wall St. Journal editorial page writers actually take the time to read their own newspaper. They might learn something.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Update: The documents behind the Wall Street Journal's story on chemRisk and chromium are posted on the Environmental Working Group website at The EWG obtained the documnents and gave them to Wall St. Journal reporter Peter Waldman.