Chrome-Plated Fraud

How PG&E's Scientists-For-Hire Reversed Findings of Cancer Study

December 23, 2005

Chrome-Plated Fraud: It's a Small World

Fast forward to California in August 2001. OEHHA's draft safety level for chromium-6 in drinking water had been roundly criticized by the Paustenbach panel, and the agency had withdrawn its recommendation. [12,14]

OEHHA scientist Jay Beaumont was assigned to look further at the JOEM article repeatedly cited by the panel. In an email to his colleagues, after summarizing the two articles, Beaumont pointed out "several notable limitations and oddities in the Zhang and Li 1997 paper." [24]

Although actual chromium-6 concentrations were available for each of the villages, Beaumont noted, the authors chose to use distance from the industrial source as "a surrogate for exposure." The concentrations would be a better measure, yet Beaumont noted that the authors provided no reason for not using the actual levels, even though they were contained in a table included in the paper. He also noticed that the authors failed to explain how they calculated distance from the pollution source — an important detail since some of the villages are more than a kilometer in width. To top it all, the paper misused three epidemiologic terms.


Although OEHHA scientists still had little reason to doubt the article's overall veracity, they began digging deeper. As they looked more closely at the connection between chromium-6 and stomach cancer, their doubts grew. The JOEM article looked at stomach cancer death rates, but didn't compare them to rates in the province, as it did for rates of total cancer. [25] The article said this questionable choice was because stomach cancer rates weren't available for the province. [2] But that's not what Jay Beaumont found.

In an e-mail to OEHHA chief Joan Denton, he wrote: "I checked to see whether the rates should have been available, and in fact they were available from the same source from which the investigators obtained other rates. The age-adjusted stomach cancer mortality rate in the province was 20.9 per 100,000 per year, while the rate in the contaminated villages was 37.1." [25: Excerpt | Full document] Overall, OEHHA's analysis showed that stomach cancer rates in the contaminated villages were 87 percent higher than found in the surrounding province, and this finding was statistically significant. Beaumont wrote another OEHHA colleague: "I wouldn't call this 'negative'!" [26: Excerpt | Full document]

Confused, OEHHA tried to track the authors down. Beaumont found a Web page promoting Zhang's rather unorthodox theories on wearing "bio-ceramic" underwear to protect against breast and prostate cancer. [27] The Web site said Zhang was a consultant to McLaren/Hart, ChemRisk's parent company. The CEO of McLaren/Hart, of course, was the same Dennis Paustenbach who had made the JOEM article a central point in the scientific panel's critique of OEHHA.

"Dr. Evil"

Paustenbach, who holds a PhD in toxicology, testified for PG&E in the Hinkley case — earning fees of $300 an hour — and once soaked in a hot tub full of chromium-laced water to try to prove that it was harmless. [28] The ChemRisk Web site touts his work for the American Petroleum Institute, Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Formaldehyde Institute. [3] He is on the editorial board of the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, which 40 prominent scientists denounced in 2003 "as a convenient venue for the publication of industry research." [29]

The Newark Star-Ledger's investigation found that in the 1990s, three companies responsible for widespread chromium pollution hired Paustenbach to help them attack the state's strict cleanup standards. "When state scientists determined chromium caused skin rashes, Paustenbach's team argued the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] was using the wrong testing method. When that argument failed to convince the department, Paustenbach and his team again did their own study and used the results to argue that the standard was too restrictive," reported the Star-Ledger. [30] Over a decade, Paustenbach's work helped save the companies an estimated $1 billion in cleanup costs by persuading the state to weaken its chromium standards from 10 parts per million in soil to more than 6,000 ppm. When the newspaper asked a former Clinton Administration environmental official about Paustenbach, he replied: "Ah, Dr. Evil." [7]

Even before he was named to the California chromium-6 review panel, Paustenbach and his work for chromium polluters was well known at OEHHA. In 2000, he'd written the agency to argue that the Public Health Goal should not be based on the assumption that chromium-6 in drinking water causes cancer. His letter cited the fraudulent 1997 ChemRisk paper, "the only epidemiological study of humans exposed to Cr(VI) through drinking water," as reporting "no excess in gastrointestinal cancers" even though levels were well above the California safety standard. [74: Excerpt | Full document]

So when Jay Beaumont found Zhang's Web page saying he was a consultant for McLaren/Hart, it wasn't hard to put two and two together. In an email to colleagues, he wrote:

"Thus the money to pay Dr. Zhang likely came from the industrial clients of McLaren/Hart who have a strong financial interest in the health effects evidence for Cr6. I don't know what Dr. Zhang was paid to do by McLaren/Hart, but republishing his study with different conclusions seems a possibility. It's a small world after all!" [27: Excerpt | Full document]