Professor ‘bragged about burying bad science’ on 3M chemicals
I am a bit reluctant to enter this old controversy again but I was amused that the Left-leaning Fairfax press is critical of "burying bad science". I guess it is because you can be reasonably sure that any science the Left likes -- from Lysenko to global warming -- is in fact bad science. So they don't like it being buried. As the replicability crisis has revealed, bad science is rife and in great need of exposure.
But I suppose that is just a quibble. At issue is the basic toxicological dictum that the toxicity is in the dose. There is no doubt that PFOS chemicals can be bad for you but at what dosage? Even water can kill you if you drink enough of it.
But there is a lot of "science" papers and publicity seeking authors that ignore that. They excitedly announce some finding of bad effects in rats and then go on to utter large warnings about the threat to human health -- without considering the dose involved or even using very large doses. Those are the bad papers that Prof. Giesy would have tried to stop.
That the chemical concerned gets into people and animals one way or another has been known for decades. But the concentrations found are extremely minute -- measured in a few parts per billion. So how toxic is it? It certainly seems to be seriously toxic to a range of animals but evidence of toxicity to people is slight. And don't forget that this has been under investigation for a long time.
Additionally, it has been estimated that there is by now some PFOS in every American, so bad effects should be pretty evident by now. But they are not.
Note that the controversy is about PFOS in general use -- as part of domestic items. People who are for one reason or another exposed to exceptionally high levels of it could well have problems. And there do appear to have been some instances of that.
But the scare has been sufficient for the American manufacturers to stop production of the stuff and the levels in people have gone into steady decline. So if it is a problem, it has been dealt with.
The ethics of Prof. Giesy taking money from a chemical company is another matter. It is the sort of thing that is widely challenged by the Left as showing bad faith or corruption but it is very widely done and evidence of the practice being corrupt is rarely offered. The participants argue that the academics provide useful advice so should be paid for it
A reputation for integrity is essential to a scientist and scientists are very careful about doing anything that could risk that reputation. So they make sure that what they do follows ethical guidelines. So you will note at the very end of the article below that Prof. Giesy has been cleared of unethical behaviour by his university. Compared to that clearance the insinuations below should be treated as dubious assertions designed to sell papers
As a leading international authority on toxic chemicals, Professor John P. Giesy is in the top percentile of active authors in the world.
His resume is littered with accolades, from being named in the Who’s Who of the World to receiving the Einstein Professor Award from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Professor Giesy was credited with being the first scientist to discover toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals in the environment, and with helping to persuade chemical giant 3M Company to abandon their manufacture.
But Fairfax Media can now reveal that Professor Giesy was accused of covertly doing 3M’s bidding in a widespread international campaign to suppress academic research on the dangers of PFAS.
A trove of internal company documents has been made public for the first time following a $US850 million ($1.15 billion) legal settlement between the company and Minnesota Attorney-General Lori Swanson. They suggest that Professor Giesy was one weapon in an arsenal of tactics used by the company to - in a phrase coined by 3M - “command the science” on the chemicals.
The documents have allowed the state to chronicle how 3M, over decades, allegedly misled the scientific community about the presence of its chemicals in the public’s blood, undermined studies linking the chemicals with cancer and scrambled to selectively fund research to be used as a “defensive barrier to litigation”.
Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, John Linc Stine, says there is a sense of violation in the community after 3M disposed of chemicals that have now seeped into the groundwater.
Experts have branded the strategies nearly identical to those used historically by the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries.
At least 90 communities across Australia are being investigated for elevated levels of the contaminants, including 10 in Sydney.
The Australian government is aggressively defending a growing number of class actions from towns where the chemicals were used for decades in fire retardants on military bases, the runoff tainting the soil and water of surrounding homes.
The Department of Health maintains there is “no consistent evidence” that the chemicals can cause “important” health effects such as cancer. In arguing this, its experts have made reference to the work of 3M scientists, who insist the chemicals are not harmful at the levels found in the blood of humans.
On Saturday, Fairfax Media exposed cancer cluster fears centring on a high school in Oakdale, Minnesota, in America’s upper mid-west, a few blocks from 3M’s global headquarters and where the water was contaminated with PFAS.
3M has vigorously denied the allegations. It did not accept liability in February, when it reached a settlement on the courthouse steps over alleged damage to Minnesota’s natural resources and drinking water.
A spokesperson said: “The vast body of scientific evidence, which consists of decades of research conducted by independent third parties and 3M, does not show that these chemistries negatively impact human health at current exposure levels”.
But several leading public health agencies in the United States have sounded warnings to the contrary.
In 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency found the “weight of evidence” supported the conclusion that the chemicals were a human health hazard, warning that exposure over certain levels could result in immune and developmental effects and cancer.
The US National Toxicology Program found they were “presumed to be an immune hazard” based on high levels of evidence from animal studies and a moderate level from humans.
Immune suppression - usually as a result of conditions such as organ transplant or HIV - is known to increase the risk of several types of cancer by making the immune system less able to detect and destroy cancer cells or fight cancer-causing infections.
DuPont, which used PFAS chemicals in the manufacture of Teflon, reached a $US670 million settlement with residents living near its manufacturing plant in Ohio, West Virginia, last year, after an expert health panel conducted a large-scale epidemiological investigation. It concluded that residents’ drinking water, tainted with one of the chemicals called PFOA, had a “probable link” to six health conditions, including kidney and testicular cancer.
One of 3M’s own material data safety sheets for a PFAS chemical included a warning that it could cause cancer in 1997 - that was subsequently removed - according to the Minnesota case.
The chemical of greatest concern in Australia is perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, arguably the most toxic of the chemicals studied. This was widely used in Scotchgard and fire-fighting foams.
Last month, there was a storm of controversy amid claims that the US EPA and the White House blocked the publication of a health study on PFAS carried out by the country’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
In emails leaked to Politico, a Trump administration aide warned that the report would be a “public relations nightmare” because it would show that the chemicals endangered human health at far lower levels than what the EPA had previously deemed safe.
Health warnings were echoed by Harvard Professor Philippe Grandjean and Professor Jamie DeWitt of North Carolina State University in their expert testimonies for the State of Minnesota.
Professor Grandjean argued that PFAS chemicals pose a “substantial present and potential hazard” to human health, including to immune, thyroid, liver, endocrine, cardiovascular and reproductive functions, and by “causing or increasing the risk of cancer”.
“Both PFOA and PFOS show convincing associations with these outcomes,” he said, adding that risks to human health had been identified at very low exposure levels.
Watching 'bad papers'
To the outside world, Professor Giesy was a renowned and independent university academic.
“But privately, he characterised himself as part of the 3M team,” alleged the State of Minnesota.
“Despite spending most of his career as a professor at public universities, Professor Giesy has a net worth of approximately $20 million. This massive wealth results at least in part from his long-term involvement with 3M for the purpose of suppressing independent scientific research on PFAS.”
Professor Giesy’s consulting company appears to have received payments from 3M between at least 1998 and 2009. One document indicated his going rate was about $US275 an hour.
In an email to a 3M laboratory manager, Professor Giesy described his role as trying to keep “bad papers out of the literature”, because in “litigation situations they can be a large obstacle to refute”.
Professor Giesy was an editor of several academic journals and, in any given year, about half of the papers submitted on PFAS came to him for review.
“Some journals … for conflict-of-interest issues will not allow an industry to review a paper about one of their products. That is where I came in,” he wrote in another email.
“In time sheets, I always listed these reviews as literature searches so that there was no paper trail to 3M.”
Professor Giesy is alleged to have passed confidential manuscripts on to 3M, as well as an email from an EPA scientist detailing its latest PFAS investigations in Athens, Georgia. He allegedly bragged about rejecting the publication of at least one paper containing negative information about PFAS.
In another email chain, a 3M manager was concerned that a study Professor Giesy had drafted was “suggestive” of possible PFAS health hazards and should be cushioned with an accompanying document on the health effects.
“This paper … could set off a chain reaction of speculation that could reopen the issue with the media and move it back to a health story; something up to now we have avoided,” he wrote.
Professor Giesy is based at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, but he also holds positions with the University of Michigan and several Chinese universities.
An internal 3M document referred to him needing to “buy favours” when developing joint projects with Chinese colleagues “over whom he can exert some influence”.
A spokesperson for the University of Saskatchewan said it had conducted two reviews of Dr Giesy’s conduct.
“We found nothing out of the ordinary or evidence of conflict of interest,” she said.