Wall Street Journal Accused of Wrongdoing on Erin Brockovich Story Credited as Key to $295 Million Settlement, Says Scientist Dr. Shukun Li
Scientist Maligned in Story Demands Retraction
SAN JOSE, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Dr. Shukun Li, a respected Chinese public health scientist, today demanded that the Wall Street Journal retract a front-page story that claimed a 1997 scientific study she co-authored was ghostwritten and the product of scientific fraud. Plaintiffs’ attorneys cited the Wall Street Journal story as instrumental in Pacific Gas & Electric’s decision to settle a California lawsuit known as “Erin Brockovich II” for $295 million in February, 2006.
“Study Tied Pollutant to Cancer: then Consultants Got Hold of It”
In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Li stated her character and professional reputation, as well as the legacy of her late colleague and 1997 study co-author Dr. JianDong Zhang, had been damaged as a result of the story, “Study Tied Pollutant to Cancer: then Consultants Got Hold of It”, published December 23, 2005. The Wall Street Journal compounded its error in a June 2, 2006 follow-up story. Both stories were written by Wall Street Journal staff reporter Peter Waldman. Based in part on the Wall Street Journal story, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM), which published Dr. Li and Dr. Zhang’s study in 1997, retracted its publication of the study, “Cancer Mortality in a Chinese Population Exposed to Hexavalent Chromium in Water”, in June, 2006.
According to Danning Jiang, Dr. Li’s U.S.-based attorney, “The Wall Street Journal knew that their story was false prior to publication. Mr. Waldman was in possession of information and documents that unmistakably prove the 1997 study was neither ghostwritten nor the product of scientific fraud. Since publication of the Wall Street Journal story, Dr. Brent Kerger, Dr. William Butler, and Dr. Dennis Paustenbach, the American scientific colleagues who were falsely accused of ghostwriting the scientific study, have provided additional documentation to the Wall Street Journal further showing Mr. Waldman got the story wrong. The Wall Street Journal, however, has done nothing to correct this journalistic misconduct.”
Dr. Li said in her letter that she has tried her “best to avoid controversy and publicity since the publication” of the Wall Street Journal story. “It appears, though, that my silence has allowed Mr. Peter Waldman to escape responsibility for the damage he has caused. Therefore, I feel compelled to dispel the fabrications and false impressions created by the Wall Street Journal story.”
Dr. Zhang was the lead co-author of the 1997 study, which looked at the effect of exposure to waterborne Chromium 6 on a population near JinZhou City, Liaoning, China.
The 1997 study concluded that while there was an association between high cancer rates and pollution (i.e., living near a metal alloy factory), there was no specific link with oral ingestion of Chromium 6. The 1997 study clarified and further analyzed the data from a brief 1987 summary of the pollution incident co-authored by Dr. Zhang. The data, compiled from 1970 to 1978, was first reported in a 1979 study as an internal Chinese government report authored by Dr. Zhang.
Dr. Li stated, “All three studies were based on the same data and supported the same conclusion: that there was no specific link between high cancer rates and oral ingestion of Chromium 6.” Dr. Li added that “it is impossible to properly analyze the three studies and conclude that the results are in any way inconsistent. The 1997 study was an attempt by Dr. Zhang to clarify and expand on his earlier work, and to correct the false impression that he had previously reported a specific link between oral ingestion of Chromium 6 and cancer.”
Yet the Wall Street Journal reported exactly the opposite, portraying the 1997 study as a complete reversal of Dr. Zhang's life's work. The 1979 study was not even mentioned. As she expressed in her letter, Dr. Li was shocked and dismayed that the Wall Street Journal also falsely reported that the 1997 published study was neither conceived nor written by Dr. Zhang and Dr Li. Instead, the Wall Street Journal wrongly concluded the 1997 article was ghostwritten by American science consultants under contract to Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), then a defendant in a lawsuit over the discharge of toxic wastewater in Hinkley, California. The lawsuit was featured in the 2000 motion picture "Erin Brockovich".
“The Wall Street Journal claim that the 1997 study was conceived and written by the American scientific consultants is completely false,” said Dr. Li. “To the contrary, the American scientific consultants functioned as peer reviewers and helped Dr. Zhang and I get the new article published in an American scientific journal. They also took Dr. Zhang’s work and translated it into English at Dr. Zhang’s request. Dr. Zhang approved every word of the article that was submitted to the JOEM.”
In published news reports, the Wall Street Journal story has been credited by Mr. Thomas V. Girardi, lead attorney for the plaintiffs’, as being the driving force behind PG&E’s February, 2006 decision to settle a California lawsuit known as “Erin Brockovich II” for $295 million. Mr. Girardi took credit for the Wall Street Journal story, which he said was largely based on information that his team had gathered, according to the San Francisco Daily Journal, “Plaintiff: PG&E Settled Rather Than Look Bad,”, February 7, 2006. “But for the fact that we had the ability and the incentive to go to China to get all this information and expose it, this case probably never would have settled,” Mr. Girardi said. The Wall Street Journal story does not mention or refer to Mr. Girardi or his team.
Today Dr. Li sent a letter to the JOEM reiterating her objection to its decision to retract the publication, and calling on the JOEM to issue a public apology and to republish the 1997 study.