Saturday, December 09, 2006

Scientists Gone Bad

I used to think that scientists were our friends -- bravely exploring what makes the world work, what makes us sick, and figuring out ways to do something about the bad things. And happily, there are a lot of scientists that do that good work. But then there are some who went over to the dark side.

According to recently uncovered documents, Sir Richard Doll was apparently one of those formerly good scientists who was lured over to the dark side by the promise of lots of money. Doll, who was one of the first scientists to link smoking to cancer, was later paid $1,500 per day by Monsanto, as well as paid consultancies from other chemical companies while investigating cancer risks of chemicals used in industry.
While he was being paid by Monsanto, Sir Richard wrote to a royal Australian commission investigating the potential cancer-causing properties of Agent Orange, made by Monsanto and used by the US in the Vietnam war. Sir Richard said there was no evidence that the chemical caused cancer.

Documents seen by the Guardian reveal that Sir Richard was also paid a £15,000 fee by the Chemical Manufacturers Association and two other major companies, Dow Chemicals and ICI, for a review that largely cleared vinyl chloride, used in plastics, of any link with cancers apart from liver cancer - a conclusion with which the World Health Organisation disagrees. Sir Richard's review was used by the manufacturers' trade association to defend the chemical for more than a decade.
While conducting the vinyl chloride study, Doll never disclosed that he was being paid by Monsanto. Doll's study exonerated the chemical of blame for all cancers except liver cancer:
The review came to the conclusion that there was no significant extra carcinogenicity associated with the manufacture of vinyl chloride other than in the liver - a fact that was already known. This contradicted a review by the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which in 1979 had listed vinyl chloride as a human carcinogen, affecting not only the liver but also the brain, lungs and lymphatic system.

Sir Richard's review was used by the industry to defend the safety of the chemical by the manufacturers' trade association for more than a decade. In 2001, the American Chemical Association, as the CMA was renamed, said: "The world's leading researchers have studied vinyl chloride and brain cancer and concluded that the evidence does not support a link between brain cancer and exposure to vinyl chloride."

The review also led to the US Environmental Protection Agency taking the view that only liver cancer could be linked to vinyl chloride.
Doll's defenders claim that when he was publishing, it was common not to reveal your funders.

Meanwhile, some of you may remember the 2005 Wall St. Journal story about an electrical utility that got expert at a chemical consulting firm to reverse the findings of a previous study showing that chromium VI causes cancer:
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.
ChemRisk's article was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) and later retracted. David Michaels over at The Pump Handle follows up on this story after the second author of the retracted article, Dr. Shukun Li , accuses the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of being “false and defamatory,” and demands a retraction and apology. Michaels explains that Li's accusations don't hold water.

The main point of all of this is, as Watergate informer Deep Throat always said, "follow the money." Between regulations, law suits and public relations disasters, chemical companies have a lot tied up in the reputation and "safety" of their products. Throwing a little money at susceptible scientists to ensure that the results of their studies come out favorably can be seen as a worthwhile -- and often effective -- investment.