BERKELEY, Calif. — At a memorial service held last month in her favorite classroom, Patricia Buffler was hailed as a champion of children.
While dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, Buffler started the nation’s largest program researching the causes of childhood leukemia. She expanded her study of this rare disease after stepping down as dean in 1998, continuing the work until she died unexpectedly in late September at the age of 75.
Buffler’s research, backed by more than $35 million in federal grants, could save lives. Her team concluded that sending your child to daycare might reduce the risk of getting leukemia, perhaps by bolstering the immune system. It found strong evidence suggesting that preschoolers should stay away from wet paint. One of her graduate students at the memorial was struck by something Buffler once said: “Children are fragile, so it is our role to protect them.”
Yet now some of her peers are torn to learn that, in the past three years, Buffler was paid more than $360,000 to work as an expert witness on behalf of companies that used to sell lead-based paint. Ten California communities, including the county where Buffler lived, this week won a $1.1 billion judgment against the companies. The money will be used to remove lead paint from older homes. Even minute amounts of lead in a child's blood can cause permanent brain damage.
According to a court filing, Buffler concluded — to the astonishment of other experts — that lead-based paint in older homes poses little risk to children. The judge rejected that argument in his written decision.
“She may be an expert in some areas but lead poisoning in children is definitely not one of them,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and lead author of widely cited studies on the effects of lead poisoning on children.
Lanphear, who testified against the paint companies, considered Buffler’s views so indefensible that, days before she died, he talked to fellow directors of the International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment about removing her from the group, of which she was a founding member.
Buffler was one of the nation’s most revered and influential public health scientists. But researchers familiar with her chemical industry consulting question whether she bent to the wishes of her corporate sponsors — a criticism she denied when questioned in lawsuits.
Her dual career arc — as public health researcher and consultant for private industry — opens a window into the deeply entrenched influence of the chemical industry on academics.
College campuses have embraced collaborating with industry for research as a way to produce innovative products and cure disease. But in public health, influential academics are often sought instead to defend potentially toxic chemicals.
While the Food and Drug Administration treats new drugs as unsafe until clinical trials prove otherwise, the Environmental Protection Agency does just the opposite with chemicals: By law, it presumes a chemical is safe unless scientific evidence shows otherwise. The burden of determining whether a chemical is harmful or deadly falls largely on academic scientists such as Buffler.
Working for industry can be lucrative for researchers, but can also pose conflicts. Even as Buffler led research into whether pesticides and herbicides may cause leukemia, she served for 17 years on the board of directors of a $3 billion pesticide and herbicide company, FMC Corp.
In 2010, FMC paid Buffler nearly $200,000 in cash and stock. Securities and Exchange Commission records show that when she sold the stock the company gave her, mostly in 2010, Buffler made more than $2 million.
A review of public records shows that in publishing her results in scientific journals or in applying for government funding from the National Institutes of Health, Buffler did not disclose that she owned stock in FMC or served as one of its directors.
UC Berkeley officials knew that Buffler served on FMC's board, said Graham Fleming, the school's vice chancellor for research. But he said that until federal rules changed recently, it was up to researchers to decide whether their financial ties posed a conflict. The university limited its own review to potential conflicts the researchers disclosed before forwarding the grant application to the NIH.
Fleming wasn't willing to say whether Buffler serving on the board of FMC posed a conflict.
“We have no way to know,” he said. “She herself must have determined that there was none. And given her record of integrity throughout her career, I would say that the default would be to accept that as the appropriate judgment.”
Since 1995, the NIH has approved more than $28 million for Buffler's research, money that went directly to UC Berkeley. The NIH wouldn't comment on whether Buffler violated its rules.
Yet Hugh Tilson, the executive editor of NIH's Environmental Health Perspectives, which published some of Buffler's pesticide research, said the journal is now reviewing whether she violated its disclosure rules.
Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts University professor and an expert in conflicts of interest in scientific research, said after reviewing Buffler's case, “This is the worst case of conflict of interest I’ve seen in years.”