Only safe level ‘is zero’
The petrochemical industry has known about benzene’s dangers since the turn of the last century. As far back as 1948, the API’s toxicological profile of the chemical discussed “reasonably well documented instances of the development of leukemia as a result of chronic benzene exposure,” cautioning that “the only absolutely safe concentration … is zero.”
Later, as scientific evidence of benzene’s hazards accumulated and regulatory limits on workplace and environmental levels tightened, the industry took a different stance. By 1990, the API and member companies such as BP, Chevron, Mobil and Shell had launched a research program meant to keep further restrictions at bay — or, minutes from an API meeting in 1992 state, research “that will be most useful in improving risk assessment and influencing regulation.”
Within years, the catalyst for the Shanghai Health Study appeared. In 1995, company representatives turned their attention to work by the National Cancer Institute, which was repeating the Pliofilm study in China to examine the effects on workers exposed to benzene at levels below the OSHA limit. Exxon, which had yet to merge with Mobil, even sent company scientists on a fact-finding visit to interview government researchers.
“We are monitoring the NCI studies,” an Exxon memo explained, “because of their potential impact concerning the health risks at low benzene exposures.”
In 1997, the NCI published a landmark study on benzene-exposed workers in Shanghai. The results reinforced past research showing the chemical causes leukemia, said Richard Hayes, a former NCI epidemiologist and the study’s lead author, but “what moved the science forward” were two findings: That workers with chronic benzene exposures had an increased risk of developing MDS and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — i.e., diseases other than leukemia — and that such effects could be triggered by doses of the chemical as low as the OSHA limit.
In 2004, the NCI released the results of a second study. It found that Chinese shoe makers inhaling benzene in amounts below the OSHA limit had fewer white blood cells than unexposed workers, suggesting the chemical has no safe threshold.
“In general,” Hayes said, “we found benzene was a larger problem than we originally thought.”
The industry quickly attacked the NCI’s work. Documents show that the API commissioned a $25,000 “critical review” of the government research from California epidemiologist Wong. In a 10-page paper, Wong challenged the NCI study from every conceivable angle. “The findings,” he wrote, “are unreliable.”
Wong insists today that his corporate funding had no influence on this conclusion. “My critique of the NCI study was comprehensive and specific,” he said. “I was responsible for every comment.”
For the industry, the review had the desired effect: It cast enough doubt on the NCI’s first study to convince the EPA, in 2000, not to rely on the research for estimating benzene’s carcinogenic effects. “We thought there were methodological issues that might be questionable,” said Bob Sonawane, of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, who has overseen agency assessments of benzene’s health risks. The agency did use the NCI work to assess non-cancer effects in 2002, Sonawane said.
By then, industry representatives were already thinking beyond conventional critiques. Wong remembers reaching out to Chinese scientists about a possible benzene study before broaching it to industry contacts. “I knew quite a few people at API and member companies,” he said. “We just started a conversation.” The campaign to finance an alternative study in China was kicked off in earnest in the late 1990s, when the API approached Irons, then a pathology professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. Irons said API officials asked him to visit Shanghai in 1999 and consider doing a study similar to the NCI’s, which examined workers’ diseases and estimated their benzene exposures after the fact and “had some provocative findings.”
Irons went to China. Upon his return, he urged the API to instead conduct what he calls “a real-time clinical study,” in which researchers examine workers’ diseases as they occur. Within a year, he, Wong and ExxonMobil scientists had drafted proposals for the Shanghai study, which the API circulated among its members to drum up financing.
API representatives went from company to company, giving what amounted to a sales pitch for the Shanghai study. They laid out just what executives might anticipate in return.
A 2001 document listed the following “expected” results:
Provide strong scientific support for a lack of a risk of leukemia … at current ambient benzene concentrations to the general population.
Establish … current occupational exposure limits do not create a significant risk.
Refute the allegation that Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can be induced by benzene exposure.
Other documents show that the industry was counting on such findings to combat stringent regulation and stave off “tremendous” costs that would come from having to cut benzene emissions. “Significant issues of concern” identified in a 2001 PowerPoint include potential requirements to reformulate gasoline and “control emissions from stationary sources.”
Liability also was a worry. Documents warned of “litigation costs due to perceptions about the risks of even very low exposures to benzene” and lawsuits “alleging induction of various forms of leukemia and other hematopoietic diseases,” including more commonly diagnosed lymphomas.
For some in the industry, the bait proved enticing.
“Given the magnitude of [health, safety and environment] issues surrounding benzene as well as the litigation claims we continue to see, I believe it would be worthwhile to participate,” a Shell executive wrote in an email in 2000, a year before the company and its four counterparts formed the Shanghai study’s official sponsor: the Benzene Health Research Consortium.
Later, as consortium members tried to plug an ever-increasing budget gap — boosting the research’s price tag from $19 million in 2001 to more than $35 million in 2008 — their argument turned repeatedly to economics. One 2003 script for a CEO-level phone call states, “This study will positively impact our global business concerns.”
Critics say such documents expose the Shanghai study for what it is: An industry attempt to buy scientific evidence. “It’s all about influencing science to get what industry wants,” said Myron Mehlman, formerly chief toxicologist at Mobil, who became a whistleblower in 1989 after the company fired him for complaining about benzene levels in its gasoline. He sued Mobil, winning a $7 million judgment.
Mehlman remembers hearing about the Shanghai study in 2005 and immediately firing off letters to 45 executives at sponsoring companies. “I knew the scientists would do whatever it takes and whatever the industry needs done,” he said. In response, he said, he got a consortium form letter that “just re-confirmed how the study is being done for a single purpose — to get desirable outcomes.”
Industry-funded researchers bristle at the science-for-sale accusations.
“I didn’t see refuting anything as my charge,” said Irons, the study’s co-principal investigator, “and I wouldn’t have responded favorably to that.”
In depositions, however, Irons conceded that oil companies had a vested interest in the project.
“The oil companies … expected … it would be used for regulation, litigation, and for understanding the health effects of benzene,” he testified in 2010, adding that he didn’t believe a “funding source or the amount of money necessarily impacts on the [study’s] objectivity.”
Wong sounds a similar note. “We didn’t know what the results were before the study began,” he said, claiming he wasn’t privy to “any discussion” among the sponsoring companies. He considers it “just unthinkable” that critics would suggest “all those outside scientists, together with us, tried to create some results.”
Noting that the study relied on actual cases from 29 Shanghai hospitals, Wong explained, “It’s very difficult to argue that we have influenced our data one way or another.”
Members of the Shanghai study’s scientific review panel echo this sentiment. They saw no signs of overt bias in the design, they say, no way to yield preconceived results. “That wasn’t my experience,” said John Cherrie, a former panelist now heading occupational health research at a British nonprofit that has worked for the petrochemical industry. “The studies were designed to investigate the true situation without any obvious bias.”
Some would-be funders weren’t so sure, documents show.
In 2002, consortium members landed a meeting with seven scientists from Dow Chemical Company to pitch the Shanghai study. The meeting came after the scientists had voiced what one described as “specific technical concerns” about its design. Dow eventually opted not to contribute.
In a deposition two years later, Dow’s head of epidemiology, James Collins, testified that the company feared the study could generate inaccurate risk estimates and thus “be biased.”
‘Independent’ review panels
Documents suggest the Shanghai study’s sponsors were keenly aware of such perceptions. To deflect criticism, they set up “independent” review panels consisting of 10 ethicists and scientists, reputable leaders in fields like epidemiology, clinical medicine and bio-statistics. By 2001, panelists were meeting investigators and reviewing protocols — “essentially quality control,” said Jerry Rice, who chaired the scientific panel. Advisory in nature, the boards have remained involved in nearly every aspect of research.
Industry representatives viewed the boards as essential for lending credibility to the study. “There are going to be people out there who will want to misinterpret and criticize the study,” one argued in a 2003 email. “It is important that ‘the integrity’ … be maintained” with the panels.
Panelists insist the boards weren’t simply for show. They say industry representatives routinely encouraged them to offer criticisms and recommendations, and they obliged. Documents show investigators incorporated so many panel suggestions that research costs soared $3 million in one year alone.
“I never felt there was any desire to muzzle or tone down criticism,” said Rice, formerly with the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, who oversaw the agency’s evaluations of chemicals for carcinogenic risks from 1996 to 2002. At IARC, Rice had come to know oil industry executives, who recruited him for the panel. “If there had been any of that, we’d have all quit.”
Still, company executives maintained tight control over the study. Documents indicate the consortium operated like a corporation, replete with committees governing research, finances and communications. Once a year, it hosted a meeting of 50 or so participants, flying American and Chinese scientists as well as review panelists to a two-day retreat to discuss the work as executives observed. Twice a year, consortium members combed through detailed progress reports filed by investigators.
The consortium also required industry review of draft manuscripts until 2005, when Irons penned his first. In it, Irons announced preliminary results linking a previously unrecognized form of myelodysplastic syndrome -- MDS -- to benzene exposure. The draft set off debate within ExxonMobil and Shell, both of which alerted the EPA — as the law required — to what was vaguely described in a consortium email as “health findings reported in a draft publication.”
At the time, Irons expressed reservations over the manuscript-review requirement.
Consortium members dropped it but kept the review boards. For years, panelists kept circulating “ready-for-submission manuscripts” for “feedback,” documents show.
Consortium members have worked especially hard on controlling their message. Before the Shanghai study began, the communications committee was crafting its marketing strategy. Documents reveal reams of “if asked” statements and media-relations plans, listing objectives such as “counter activists’ negativity.” Among the committee’s tasks, according to a 2001 email:
perception needs to be that this is not being done to protect against litigation
use a consulting attorney to address these issues of perceived motivation
Consortium sales pitches to prospective contributors, expressed in recruitment briefs, “call sheets” and “adaptable” slideshows, epitomize this corporate spin. Publicly, members have claimed altruistic motives for backing the Shanghai study. During a presentation in 2002 at PetroChina, a Chinese oil firm targeted for sponsorship, one Shell scientist proclaimed, according to a company email, “We believe it is important to understand the hazards of the products we make and sell, and we believe it is the right thing to do!”
Privately, consortium members betrayed less charitable motives. A draft of a 2002 recruitment brief reminded potential sponsors that “there is continued concern with the potential health effects of benzene as it relates to worker exposure … and personal injury claims.”
In response, a Shell executive urged colleagues to “delet[e] the reference to legal liabilities” and emphasized that “the only reason we are doing this is in support of protecting workers.”
Widows like Carolyn Wright have trouble processing such statements. Her husband, Eric, was a consummate company man whose closets brimmed with Shell awards, buckles, hats and magnets. Wright spent 34 years, from 1976 to 2010, working on offshore vessels for five oil companies — 18 at Shell. A trained “gun shooter,” he repaired sonar equipment, breaking down air guns. He soaked parts in benzene-laced solvents in a diesel-engine room, breathing in the chemical at exposures estimated to be two to five times greater than the legal limit.