Toxicologist should be censured, says group

Environmental watchdog group says toxicologist deserves penalty for involvement in retracted paper; scientist says he was honoring now-deceased study author's wishes

Aug 2, 2006
Melissa Lee Phillips
An environmental watchdog group is requesting censure of a toxicologist for his role in a recently retracted paper, which disputed a link between toxic chromium and cancer. The scientist, according to the Environmental Working Group, helped to conceal corporate funding for the paper, and then used the study's conclusions to argue against stricter chromium water standards.In an Email letter sent to the president of the Society of Toxicology (SOT), the EWG said that society member Dennis Paustenbach, CEO of San Francisco-based consulting firm ChemRisk, violated the Society's Code of Ethics.The Society of Toxicology should censure Paustenbach, EWG senior vice president Richard Wiles told The Scientist, "so that it's clear that there's some price to be paid for deliberate fraudulent activity and then using fake science to weaken public health protections." For instance, some type of "serious statement" condemning Paustenbach's behavior might be an appropriate deterrent to others.Paustenbach, however, said that his role on the paper was relatively minor, and the lead author asked ChemRisk scientists to leave their names off the study. Kurt Fehling, director of operations at ChemRisk, added in a statement to The Scientist that "there is no valid challenge to the underlying science" of the study. "The EWG for years has tried and failed to demonstrate scientific fraud by Dr. Paustenbach," Fehling said.The controversial paper was published in 1997 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine under the names of Chinese scientists JianDong Zhang and ShuKun Li. It reported no connection between hexavalent chromium and cancer risk in five Chinese villages. The paper reversed the conclusions of a 1987 paper by Zhang, which had used the same data to argue that tap water contaminated with chromium was linked to an increased number of cancer cases. The 1997 paper was retracted by JOEM in its July 2006 issue, after editors learned that the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) had hired ChemRisk scientists to perform the re-analysis and write the paper. At the time of the paper's publication, PG&E was being sued by residents of Hinkley, Calif. -- in the famous Erin Brockovich case -- for polluting drinking water with hexavalent chromium, which allegedly had caused cancer and other health problems. Neither PG&E's financial support nor ChemRisk's intellectual input was acknowledged in the JOEM paper -- an omission that violated the journal's editorial policy.Paustenbach, however, told The Scientist that ChemRisk scientists are not the only contributors who have been less than forthcoming. "If the journal was using those rules over the last 10 years, I think they'd find dozens of papers to have inadequacies in disclosure."According to Paustenbach, Zhang asked that only he and Li appear as authors on the paper, and Paustenbach's role was relatively minor. Moreover, Zhang said he was afraid of getting in trouble with the Chinese government if he admitted collaborations with U.S. scientists. "Since [we] only assisted the authors with the translation and assisted them in preparing the tables in a way that was required by a journal in the United States, [we] did not think that was something that had to be disclosed, especially if the authors were concerned about how the Chinese Communist government would feel about a relationship with Americans."Zhang is now deceased but JOEM editor Paul Brandt-Rauf contacted Li through a translator and she said she had no objections to the retraction. Fehling of ChemRisk, however, said that Li opposed the retraction.The paper's retraction is "significant for public policy purposes, which is why we moved to have that done," said Wiles -- but it's not enough. According to Wiles, internal documents that EWG acquired from ChemRisk show that it was Paustenbach's plan to re-analyze the data from Zhang's 1987 paper. Other ChemRisk scientists acquired and analyzed the data and wrote the paper, and then Paustenbach signed off on it before it was submitted under Zhang and Li's names, Wiles said. After the paper's publication, Paustenbach used the conclusions to influence public policy, Wiles alleged, by lobbying for weaker restrictions on chromium levels in drinking water. "It's really important that this kind of behavior [is] not tolerated by professional societies like SOT," Wiles said.Paustenbach, however, said he's in favor of full disclosure when appropriate. "I was one of the first people to promote disclosure. Anybody that knows my work knows that it's not something I've shied away from... so I'm very disappointed that EWG has chosen this road."The complaint from EWG "is being processed through the normal channels within the society and obviously will take some time," said SOT president James Popp of Stratoxon, a consulting firm based in Lancaster, Pa. Reports of ethics violations "certainly get evaluated by the council, which is the governing body of the organization," Popp told The Scientist. "Beyond that, I really can't comment on what the process is."Melissa Lee Phillips Mphillips@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:M.L. Phillips, "Journal retracts chromium study," The Scientist, June 7, 2006. Zhang, S Li, "Cancer mortality in a Chinese population exposed to hexavalent chromium in water," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, April 1997. PM_ID: 9113601 S. Pincock, "Full disclosure?" The Scientist, October 1, 2003. to James Popp, EWG, July 18, 2006. of Toxicology Paustenbach Fehling Zhang, XL Li, "[Chromium pollution of soil and water in Jinzhou]," Zhonghua Yu Fang Yi Xue Za Zhi, September 1987. PM_ID: 3443034Pacific Gas & Electric about chromium work, EWG Popp