HINKLEY, Calif. – Ten days before Christmas 1965, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. station chief Richard Jacobs walked a half-block on a dusty road lined with scraggly creosote shrubs to check out a neighbor’s toilet.
Jacobs carried with him a secret, something he referred to as the “chromate problem.”
Starting in 1952, the power company began mixing a toxic form of chromium with water to prevent rust at a new pipeline pumping station in Hinkley, a remote desert community united by a single school and a general store. PG&E dumped the chromium-laced water into a pond.
Lately there had been reports of problems with the neighbors’ wells. PG&E had just drawn greenish water from one well and discovered high levels of chromium. Now, retired farmer John Speth was complaining of greenish deposits in his toilet bowl.
Jacobs took a look in the bowl but assured Speth that PG&E had nothing to do with it. “When I left Mr. Speth,” Jacobs later wrote in longhand, “he was satisfied but still concerned about his water.” Speth died of stomach cancer in 1974.
It wasn’t until Dec. 7, 1987 — 22 years after that visit to Speth’s house — that PG&E finally told the local water board that it had contaminated the underground water. The company claimed it had discovered the problem just one week earlier.
From here, the story is familiar to anyone who saw the hit film Erin Brockovich. The corporate polluter was taken to court. The victims got millions of dollars. Problem solved.
But in reality, the “chromate problem” has not gone away. Today, tens of millions of Americans drink chromium-tainted tap water. Yet the controversy over whether people like Speth are dying of cancer from it is still being hotly debated.
Some of the most powerful voices in the debate are companies with a stake in the outcome. They’ve hired scientists to convince regulators that the chemical compound is safe. The lawsuit that Brockovich championed was merely the beginning of an intriguing tale about corporate manipulation of science.
In 2008, the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, published groundbreaking research detailing how mice and rats that drank heavy doses of a toxic form of chromium called chromium (VI) developed cancerous tumors. The findings prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to act.
EPA scientists evaluated hundreds of studies and concluded that chromium (VI) likely causes cancer in people who drink it. The agency in 2011 was on the verge of making its scientists’ findings official — a first step toward forming more stringent clean-water rules. But last year it bowed to pressure and announced it was going to wait for new studies being paid for by the chemical industry.
To lead those studies, the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s main trade group and lobbyist, hired ToxStrategies Inc., a Texas-based firm with scientists experienced in poking holes in research that links chromium to cancer. The company describes its business this way on its website: “We often interact and collaborate with regulatory, academic and industrial professionals to ensure that the most appropriate science is incorporated into each assessment.”
Mark Harris and Deborah Proctor, two principal scientists at ToxStrategies, have a history of attempting to delay regulatory action on chromium. Starting in 1996, they were both leaders in the chrome industry’s efforts to dissuade the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from setting stricter rules for airborne chromium in the workplace. OSHA pushed back action for years despite decades of research showing that workers exposed to chromium were dying at higher-than-expected rates of lung cancer. The agency finally adopted a stricter standard in 2006 under pressure from a court order.
Proctor also worked on revising a 1987 study that concluded that Chinese villagers who drank water polluted with chromium (VI) had higher than normal rates of stomach cancer. With funding from PG&E, Proctor’s employer, ChemRisk, paid the Chinese author to help publish a new analysis of the data. In contrast to the earlier article, the new one concluded that chromium wasn’t the likely culprit.The revised study — which did not reveal the involvement of PG&E or its scientists — helped persuade California health officials to delay new drinking water standards for chromium.
Finally, with industry funding, Proctor worked to try to influence the makeup and findings of a scientific panel deciding whether California needed stricter drinking water standards for chromium. The panel concluded — to the surprise of many — that there was no scientific basis for believing that drinking chromium causes cancer. One-third of Californians have chromium in their water.
Proctor and Harris declined to respond to requests for interviews.
The use of science to delay regulation is part of a familiar pattern in the field of environmental science. Industry pays for research to address “data gaps.” Even when animals or people are believed to be getting cancer from exposure, industry scientists argue that the chemical in question is dangerous only at extremely high doses. Finally, they argue that you can’t determine a safe dose of a chemical unless you understand precisely how it causes cancer. Until all the questions are answered, they say, it’s not fair to ask industry to bear the cost of stricter rules.
“So now what is happening is the industry is trying to get scientists to slow down the EPA,” said Gary Praglin, one of the lawyers who sued PG&E on behalf of Speth and hundreds of others who had lived near the Hinkley pumping station.
David Michaels, an epidemiologist who now heads OSHA, has written extensively about this brand of science.
“Their business model is straightforward,” Michaels wrote in his book, "Doubt Is Their Product." “They profit by helping corporations minimize public health and environmental protection and fight claims of injury and illness. In field after field, year after year, this same handful of individuals come up again and again.”
Overwhelming evidence of lung cancer
Suspicions that chromium might cause cancer emerged in the late 19th century. In the 1950s, studies of factory workers exposed to airborne chromium showed much higher rates of lung cancer than expected. Thomas Mancuso, a pioneer in occupational medicine, continued to follow the workers at a chromate plant in Painesville, Ohio, for decades. In his final account in 1997, he reported that 23 percent of them had died of lung cancer. Other studies elsewhere confirmed Mancuso’s findings.
Given the overwhelming evidence that chromium particles in the air were killing people, PG&E’s challenge in the Hinkley case was to persuade judges on an arbitration panel that chromium traces in water were different. The company hired academic scientists, such as Steven Patierno at George Washington University, who testified that saliva and stomach acid render toxic chromium harmless, at least at levels that any human would drink.
Still, a few troubling studies at the time suggested that humans and animals may have developed cancer from drinking chromium. To address those studies, PG&E hired ChemRisk, a scientific firm that helped companies with legal or regulatory issues. The chief executive officer of ChemRisk was Dennis Paustenbach, a San Francisco scientist who has become the undisputed star of product defense.
Paustenbach declined interview requests. In a 2009 profile written by two University of Virginia professors, Paustenbach explains that he’s been driven since his modest upbringing to be financially successful, putting in 65-hour work weeks.
His work as a scientist has included advocacy from the start. Each week as a young toxicologist at a chemical company in Connecticut, he flew to the nation’s capital to lobby regulatory agencies such as the EPA. His relationship with the agency evolved and he later sat on numerous EPA advisory panels. For the past four years, he’s served on a panel overseeing EPA research.
A rare inside look at what Paustenbach does can be found in the minutes of a 1996 meeting in Pittsburgh of the Chrome Coalition, then the industry’s trade group. At the time, OSHA was proposing a big reduction in the amount of chromium dust allowed in the workplace. Paustenbach outlined a plan to prevent that from happening.
“Dr. Paustenbach suggested that … the Coalition may wish to approach the regulators with a program designed to fill a ‘data gap’ … to forestall the rulemaking,” the minutes read.
There was a discussion of ChemRisk possibly providing “confidential” and “pro bono” assistance to researchers at Johns Hopkins University to finish analyzing data for an EPA study of a Baltimore chromate plant. The EPA study was designed to answer questions left from Mancuso’s earlier work. At the same time, Paustenbach proposed writing an “anti-Mancuso manuscript” and critiquing all relevant workplace studies in an “effort of convincing OSHA not to go forward with what they presently have.”
Also attending the meeting were Proctor, who worked for Paustenbach at ChemRisk, and Harris, a former ChemRisk employee who at the time worked for Chemical Land Holdings, a company involved in a costly chromium cleanup. Both Proctor and Harris now work for ToxStrategies.
Paustenbach said in a recent statement to CPI and PBS NewsHour, “There is no evidence supporting any unethical conduct by ChemRisk scientist in regards to past work for the Chrome Coalition. The focus of ChemRisk scientists was solely on expanding the body of knowledge on which OSHA and other scientists could evaluate Chromium 6.”
In the end, the EPA study confirmed Mancuso’s findings that workers exposed to chromium were at a substantially higher risk of dying from lung cancer. Still, OSHA would wait more than a decade to tighten workplace standards for chromium under pressure from federal appeals court decision.
For the PG&E lawsuit, Paustenbach decided to conduct original research. Environmental science often lacks good human studies. Few people would volunteer to drink something potentially toxic to see if it would make them sick. Yet, that is precisely what Paustenbach did.
He and other scientists at ChemRisk sat for hours in Jacuzzis filled with chromium-laced water. They also drank chromium-contaminated water by the jug and then ran tests on their blood and urine.
ChemRisk scientist Brent Finley appeared on ABC News in 1996 to drink some of the yellow water, prompting correspondent Cynthia McFadden to say, “There are those who would say you drinking a gallon of this chromium-laced water doesn’t prove anything except that you — in some people’s minds — may be foolish.”
Paustenbach explained in his business school profile that he’s motivated in his work by what he sees as greedy lawyers using bad science to take advantage of corporations.
"Without a doubt, a large percentage of environmental and occupational claims are simply bogus,” he said, “intended only to extract money from those who society believes can afford to ‘share the wealth.’ "