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ChemRisk's Los Alamos Contract Questioned

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

LOS ALAMOS LAB CONTRACTOR CAUGHT IN SCIENTIFIC FRAUD: WORK ON CHROMIUM CONTAMINATION CONFLICTS WITH TIES TO POLLUTERS

OAKLAND, Calif., Jan. 10 — The consulting firm in charge of investigating how toxic chromium from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) contaminated a regional aquifer fraudulently planted an article in a scientific journal reversing the findings of an earlier study linking the chemical to cancer, according to documents obtained by Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The consultants are ChemRisk, based in San Francisco, who have a multimillion-dollar contract with the U.S. Department of Energy and Centers for Disease Control to examine all chemical and radioactive releases from the lab (LANL), which develops nuclear weapons and is managed by the University of California. ChemRisk's job is to find and catalog historical documents on chemical and radioactive leaks and discharges, but also prioritizing the health risks of the chemicals detected.

In December, extraordinarily high levels of chromium were found in test wells just north of LANL. Today, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Tom Widner of ChemRisk, director for the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) project, confirmed that his team is investigating the chromium contamination. The Journal said chromium levels in a monitoring well in Mortandad Canyon were more than four times federal drinking water standards and eight times the state ground-water quality standard.

The Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 23 that in 1997 ChemRisk distorted the data from a Chinese study linking a form of chromium to stomach cancer to publish an article under the original author's byline that reversed the earlier findings. ChemRisk was working for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on the infamous "Erin Brockovich" case, in which residents of Hinkley, Calif., sued PG&E for polluting their drinking water with chromium-6. PG&E paid $333 million to settle the case.

From California health officials and court records, EWG has obtained the documents outlining the fraud, and posted them at www.ewg.org/reports/chromium.

The fraudulent article has influenced chromium regulations by state and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. ChemRisk, perpetrator of the deception, continues to work for corporate and government clients including the Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control, who last year renewed ChemRisk's LAHDRA contract for another five years and a reported $5 million.

EWG has written the Centers for Disease Control, urging the agency to take action against the company. "ChemRisk's current contract must be cancelled and the firm barred from seeking future contracts from the CDC or other government agencies," Wiles wrote Dec. 23.

On Monday, Wiles wrote again to the CDC saying: "As if ChemRisk's unethical work for chromium polluters wasn't enough reason to disqualify them from any taxpayer-paid contract, now it comes out that at Los Alamos they have direct responsibility for investigating a chemical they're known to have been dishonest about.

"A company that's willing to commit scientific fraud to help a corporate client win a lawsuit has no business getting taxpayer money for a public health investigation," wrote Wiles. "Now we see that there is a direct conflict of interest, because ChemRisk is paid by PG&E and other polluters to downplay the risk of chromium in drinking water." (The letter is available at www.ewg.org.)

The ChemRisk article was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. EWG has written the journal's editors urging them to set the record straight and bar the scientists who were involved from its pages.

The documents obtained by EWG show that ChemRisk employees—with the knowledge of PG&E's attorneys—hired one of the original study's authors as a "consultant," and conducted a new analysis of his data that deliberately ignored evidence of an association between stomach cancer and chromium-6 in drinking water.

They then wrote and submitted the article for publication without disclosing that they worked for ChemRisk or that PG&E had paid for the new "study." Nowhere in the published article are the names of the ChemRisk employees who worked on it, or any indication that it was part of PG&E's legal defense strategy.

The founder and president of ChemRisk is Dennis Paustenbach, who has made a career of consulting for big polluters including PG&E, ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical. In 2002, his appointment to a federal committee on the health effects of chemicals was blasted by independent scientists as part of a Bush Administration pattern of packing environmental panels with industry-friendly experts.

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C., that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.