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Jewish World Review August 5, 1999 /23 Av 5759

Joseph Perkins

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Utilizing junk science
for big payoffs -- MICHAEL WITHEY, a Seattle trial lawyer, is credited with taking to trial the first multimillion-dollar damage suit against a utility company claiming personal injury from electromagnetic fields.

The case was filed back in 1993 in San Diego. It involved a Serra Mesa (Calif.) couple, Ted and Michele Zuidema, whose 5-year-old daughter, Mallory, suffered from a rare form of kidney cancer. Withey blamed San Diego Gas and Electric power lines for causing the child's illness.

Well, a jury found no link between the San Diego utility's power lines and little Mallory's cancer. The Zuidemas were devastated by the outcome. Withey, undaunted, moved on to other more promising (or so he hoped) EMF lawsuits.

Withey was convinced that electromagnetic fields cause cancer. And, at the time he was waging his courtroom jihad against Big Electric, he had at least two widely reported scientific papers to support his conclusion -- to give him real hope that, one day, he just might extract an asbestos-like or breast-implant-like settlement from the nation's deep-pocket utilities.

The two papers were published the year before Withey's first EMF suit went to trial. One of the papers appeared in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, the other in FEBS Letters, which is published by the Federation of European Biochemical Societies.

The author of both papers was Robert P. Liburdy, a cell biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. His research concluded that electromagnetic fields exert a biological effect that leads to a variety of illnesses, including childhood leukemia.

That was all trial lawyers like Withey needed to beat a hasty path to the courthouse. And that's all "public interest" groups needed to hound power companies around the country to move electric lines, to install shielding, or to bury new power lines in the ground (at a cost of more than $1 billion a year, according to government estimates).

Well, as it turns out, all the scary stories about electromagnetic fields causing cancer, all the lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages from electric companies, were based on a false premise. For Liburdy has recently been exposed as a scientific fraud. Indeed, the federal Office of Research Integrity, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that Liburdy "engaged in scientific misconduct in biomedical research by falsifying and fabricating data and claims about the purported cellular effects of electric and magnetic fields."

This finding by the integrity office, published last month in the Federal Register, is consistent with earlier findings by the Lawrence Berkeley lab, which took a hard look at Liburdy's EMF research back in 1995 after a whistle-blower challenged his results. Lab investigators surmised that the cell biologist unscrupulously discarded data that did not fit his conclusion.

Indeed, practically every major study of electromagnetic fields published since Liburdy's 1992 papers has contradicted the scientist's conclusion that power lines cause cancer. Perhaps the most authoritative of these studies was completed two years ago by the National Cancer Institute.

It involved 636 children with leukemia and 620 healthy children matched to the cancer patients by age, race and neighborhood. After tracking the children's exposure to electromagnetic fields from power lines, they found no correlation between exposure and cancer.

So what motivated Liburdy to doctor his research results, to mislead the public into believing that power lines cause cancer? Well, at least one long-time skeptic of the EMF-cancer link, University of Maryland physics professor Robert Park, told The New York Times that the kind of junk science promoted by Liburdy is not altogether uncommon for the field, which seems to attract crusaders out to demonize certain industries.

But there is also a huge financial incentive for junk scientists like Liburdy. Indeed, on the basis of his fraudulent EMF research, he managed to score $3.3 million in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Energy Department and the Pentagon.

That's why junk science is such a growth industry in this country. Scientists have a tremendous financial incentive to hype some putative public health threat -- whether it be asbestos in schools and office buildings, pesticide traces in foods, or electromagnetic fields from power lines.

Moreover, some scientists have an unholy alliance with trial lawyers, who use their research, no matter how questionable, as pretexts for multimillion-dollar personal-injury lawsuits (sometimes paying scientists generous consulting fees to tell a jury how, say, EMF can cause leukemia in 5-year-old little girls).

The nation's utilities got off lucky. The trial lawyers were unsuccessful in using junk science to shake them down for billions of dollars. It's a pity that other industries targeted by junk scientists and lawyers -- like the silicone implant industry -- were not similarly lucky.

JWR periodic contributor Joseph Perkins is San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©1999, NEA