Because the university is publicly funded, such communications fall under the Freedom of Information Act and legally must be turned over upon request, but after five months the university has failed to answer such a request — despite having cashed a check to reimburse the expense involved in fulfilling the request more than 10 weeks ago.
Since 2003 U of M has received at least $15 million dollars to carry out a study that involves exposure to the chemical dioxin among residents of the Saginaw River watershed. Dioxin is a highly toxic and cancer causing byproduct of chemical manufacturing and Dow Chemical’s operations at its Midland facility are the source of dioxin contamination in the watershed.
Dioxin has contaminated the floodplain of the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers and the plume of contamination stretches into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.
In 2003, residents of the contaminated floodplain filed a class action suit against Dow Chemical seeking medical monitoring and property damages. That same year Dow commissioned a study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health to examine whether there is a relationship between levels of dioxin in soil and household dust and levels of dioxin in people‘s blood.
The study did not involve many samples from the area known to be most contaminated with dioxin, and it found only a small relationship between soil and blood dioxin levels. In public presentations about the study results, however, lead researcher Dr. David Garabrant insisted that the study had found no relationship between blood and soil levels.
The dioxin exposure study got a great deal of publicity in the greater Saginaw area, and though it was not a study of the health effects of dioxin exposure, in public events and in news coverage it was frequently portrayed as scientific evidence that area residents need not fear the contamination.
Both the state Department of Environmental Quality (now the Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found it necessary to commission and present critiques of the study.
Among the shortfalls identified in these publicly funded reviews was that the study didn’t give adequate attention to groups that could be at special risk, such as children who have greater exposure to soils or people who eat fish from the contaminated watershed. The government reports also pointed out that the study did not sample heavily in the most contaminated areas. Despite these limitations chemical industry groups have lobbied to have the study be used by government agencies involved in regulating dioxin and cleaning it up.
The study authors have insisted that Dow’s sponsorship of their work had no affect on it.
In a Dec. 3, 2009 e-mail exchange with Michigan Messenger Garabrant insisted that Dow received no preferential treatment by researchers.
“Our research contract does not require us to share our presentations with Dow or anyone else. Dow, MDEQ, and everyone else are welcome to sit in the audience at any public presentation we make,” he said. “We do not provide our materials to any stakeholder preferentially, including MDEQ and Dow. They will get the presentations when all other stakeholders get them – when they are posted to the web.”
However, a copy of the contract between U-M and Dow, obtained by Michigan Messenger through a FOIA request last fall, shows that Dow was allowed to preview all communications about the study.
Sponsor recognizes that under University policy, the University must be free to publish results of University Project and agrees that researchers engaged in Project shall be permitted to present at symposia, national, or regional professional meetings, and to publish in journals, theses or dissertations, or otherwise of their own choosing, methods and results of Project, provided however that Sponsor shall have been furnished copies of any proposed publication or presentation at least one month in advance of the submission of such proposed publication or presentation to a journal, editor, or other third party.
In an effort to understand what this provision of the contract meant for the study and public presentations about the study, Michigan Messenger in October filed a FOIA request asked for copies of correspondence between U of M and Dow about the presentation and promotion of the study.
U of M’s FOIA office identified the records in November, and cashed a $240 dollar check to cover the labor costs of sorting the files and preparing the response, but more than 10 weeks later still has not produced the documents.
These documents are important to ascertain what influence Dow may have exerted over the study’s methods and results, and over the way those results are communicated to the public, because experts say corporate funded research is far more likely to support the vested interests of that funder than independently funded studies.
Social psychologist Carol Tavris earned her Phd from the University of Michigan in 1971 and wrote about the dangers of the corporate funding of research in her recent book with Elliot Aronson, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By ME).”
Tavris said that when the firewall between industry and research is breached there is corruption and sometimes the funded scientist isn’t even aware that he or she has become corrupted.
“Fundamentally what happens is that if I accept money to do research from a company with a vested interest in the outcome of my research I will continue to think of myself as unbiased, but the fact is that I am biased in terms of interpreting data in a way that benefits my funder or else I won’t get more funding.”
“As universities in their quest for money began breaking down what was once a massive firewall between research and industry they began to lose track of how funding blinds them,” she said.
Tavris said that comparing the results of studies funded independently and those funded by industry shows a consistent and undeniable bias toward the interests of the corporations that funded the research.
In her book she describes one case in which two investigators “selected 161 studies all published in the same six year span, of the possible risks to human health of four chemicals. Of those funded by industry, only 14 percent found harmful effects on health; of those funded independently, fully 60 percent found harmful effects.”
In another case:
“A researcher examined more than 100 controlled clinical trials designed to determine effectiveness of a new medication over older ones. Of those favoring the traditional drug, 13 percent had been funded by drug companies and 87 percent by nonprofit institutions.”
Tavris said that Dow’s requirement that it preview presentations about the dioxin exposure study compromises the project.
“If you are going to accept money from any funder with a vested interest the rules have to be clear and ruthless. There needs to me a firewall between funder and the vested interest.”
Even without such a preview provision, she said, where there is corporate funding, “the researcher will be bending over backwards to get the results they want.”
Tavris also pointed out that there is a history of corporate funding compromising research at the University of Michigan, even when it involved far lower amounts of money — and Dow was even involved in at least one previous scandal.
In 2001, FOIA requests by the Louisville Courier-Journal revealed a very close relationship between CSX railroad and the University of Michigan researchers that it had hired to study whether exposure to chlorinated solvents had caused brain damage in CSX workers.
The newspaper reported that CSX and Dow Chemical had paid more than $170,000 for research that concluded that there was no link between the workers solvent exposure and their diagnosed brain damage. It also reported that while carrying out the study two of the researchers had worked as paid expert witnesses for law firms representing the railroad in the lawsuits filed by workers.
According to a June 26, 2001 Associated Press account of the scandal, the CSX and Dow Chemical-funded study “was conducted without consent from the workers, using data from medical tests they underwent at the university years before, not knowing those tests would become research material.”
The University insisted that corporate sponsorship has had no impact on the study and an investigation by the U-M Institutional Review Board cleared lead author Dr. James Albers and his colleague Dr. Stanley Berent of any wrongdoing in October 2001.
Two years later federal investigators found that the University had failed to follow correct protocol when it allowed doctors to access medical records without permission.
According to a March 10, 2003 AP report the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Human Research Protection ordered the University to submit a correction action plan and to respond to other undisclosed concerns.
Both Albers and Berent are still listed as faculty on the website of the U of M School of Public Health.
Dr. David Garabrant, the lead investigator for the U of M Dioxin Expose Study was also one of the researchers in the CSX sponsored solvent research.