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Researcher faked data in high-voltage power line study

New York Times News Service

A federal probe has found that a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., faked what had been considered key evidence of a tie between electromagnetic radiation and cancer. The disclosure appears to strengthen the case that electric power is safe.

Robert P. Liburdy, a cell biologist at the laboratory, an arm of the Energy Department, was found to have published two papers with misleading data. Investigators said Liburdy eliminated data that did not support his conclusions. After the investigation, he resigned quietly from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in March and has agreed to withdraw his research findings.

Federal officials say his misrepresentations helped him win $3.3 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense to investigate a link between electric power and cancer.

Debate has raged for decades over whether power lines cause cancer even though top scientific groups such as the National Academy of Sciences have repeatedly found no evidence of danger. But other researchers say enough tantalizing clues keep emerging to warrant further investigations of possible links between electromagnetic radiation and killer diseases, sowing seeds of anxiety among people living near high-tension power lines.

"If he hadn't gotten these results, nobody would have paid any attention," a federal investigator in the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday.

The two papers reported data indicating that electromagnetic fields, also known as EMF, exert a biological effect by altering the entry of calcium across a cell's surface membrane. The fields are ubiquitous forms of radiation that arise from all power lines, home wiring and computers.

Federal officials say Liburdy's claims were potentially very important when published in 1992 because they purported to link electromagnetic fields to calcium signaling, which is a fundamental process governing many important cellular functions.

"When he originally published these papers, there was quite a bit of interest in it," said Woods. "Now both the lab and the Office of Research Integrity have found that data on which he based his conclusions were fabricated. He's been asked to withdraw that data, and I think he's doing that right now."

As part of his federal settlement, Liburdy has agreed to make no applications for federal grants for three years and not to contest the federal findings in administrative proceedings.

Liburdy can, however, disagree publicly with the misconduct findings, and he is doing so vigorously, professing his innocence.

The ethics probe of Liburdy began after a whistle-blower challenged his intriguing results. In July 1995, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab determined that Liburdy had indeed falsified data, and it alerted the Office of Research Integrity, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last month, the integrity office announced its findings in the Federal Register, saying Liburdy had "engaged in scientific misconduct in biomedical research by falsifying and fabricating data and claims about the purported cellular effects of electric and magnetic fields."

Recently, in letters sent over the Internet to scientific colleagues and interested parties, Liburdy has denied that his research is wrong and said he agreed to the federal settlement only because he was unable to spend $1 million to mount a legal defense.

"The raw data for these figures is not challenged, and is valid," Liburdy wrote in one letter. "How I graphed them is a matter of disagreement among scientists. Independent scientists have reviewed this for me and concluded that misconduct is not warranted."

He also stressed that "none of my scientific conclusions in the two papers are being retracted," only the disputed published data.

Requests for further comments left yesterday at Liburdy's residence in Tiburon, just north of San Francisco, went unanswered.

Federal experts vigorously disagree with Liburdy's defense and claims of innocence.

"This is not a matter of interpretation or graphing," said the investigator. "This is fabrication and falsification. He can express his opinion, but not to an appeal board."

In misconduct cases, especially ones involving large sums of money, the federal government can bring civil or criminal charges, and the defendant can be fined and sentenced to jail. In this case, officials say, they concluded that an administrative remedy was sufficient.

The terms of the settlement with Liburdy are detailed in the June 17 Federal Register. The notice says Liburdy "neither admits or denies" the finding of scientific misconduct.

Federal officials say Liburdy did not spend all of the $3.3 million in grant money, and that the remainder is controlled by the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

"It's being used for other science" and none of it has been returned to the federal government, Glenn R. Woods, the laboratory's counsel, said Friday.

Liburdy's two disputed papers both appeared in 1992, and in both cases he was the lone author.

The paper, "Biological interactions of cellular systems with time-varying magnetic fields," appeared in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. "Calcium signaling in lymphocytes in ELF fields" appeared in FEBS Letters, published by the Federation of European Biochemical Societies.

In the years since Liburdy's research appeared, more than 20 studies have found no hard evidence that electric power causes cancer, a National Institutes of Health panel concluded recently.

Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland who has long questioned the power-cancer link, said Liburdy's deception was probably typical for the field, which he said seems to attract crusaders out to vilify industry.

"It's often not deliberate fraud either," Park said of slanted data. "People are awfully good at fooling themselves. They're so sure they know the answer that they don't want to confuse people with ugly-looking data."

In the power line debate, Park added, the proponents of danger "were desperately looking for a physical effect, and the nearest they could come by was the calcium signal."

The growing consensus among researchers seems to be that electric power is safe.

Two years ago, a large, meticulously designed study found no evidence that electromagnetic fields emanating from power lines cause leukemia in children. The study was a collaboration between scientists at the National Cancer Institute and childhood leukemia specialists from the nation's leading medical centers.

The study involved 636 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer, and 620 healthy children who were matched to the cancer patients by race, age and residential neighborhood.

Scientists tracked the children's exposure to the fields that power lines produce, but found no relationship between exposure and risk.

Park said the new findings of power-cancer misrepresentation will aid the emerging consensuses on safety. "But I'm not sure how strongly," he added, as other scientists are still investigating and advancing the idea of a cancer linkage.

Published by
The Tennessean
Saturday, 7/24/99

 
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