Friday, July 23, 1999
Scientist faked data linking electromagnetic fields to cancer
The results of a federal probe into Robert P. Liburdy's research, which found he had committed scientific misconduct by tossing out data that didn't support his conclusions, were reported by the San Francisco Chronicle today and appeared June 30 in Science Now, the Internet edition of the journal Science.
More than 20 studies in the years since Liburdy's research appeared in several journals in 1992 have found little hard evidence that the magnetic fields around electric power lines cause cancer, a National Institutes of Health panel concluded recently.
Still, the possibility has raised fears among people living near high-tension power lines and other sources of the radiation, since Liburdy's work tied the invisible emanations to a variety of illnesses, including childhood leukemia.
While the suggestion had been raised previously, Liburdy's studies, reported in scientific journals in 1992, provided the first plausible biological mechanism linking electromagnetic fields exposure to disease.
Lawrence Berkeley Lab investigated Liburdy after a whistleblower challenged his results. In July 1995, the lab concluded Liburdy had falsified data, and it alerted the Office of Research Integrity, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A separate probe by that office determined Liburdy, who got $3.3 million in federal research grants, had committed scientific misconduct by "intentionally falsifying and fabricating" his data to support assertions of cellular effects from electric and magnetic fields.
Liburdy, 51, who lives in Tiburon, just north of San Francisco, resigned his 15-year position in March after the lab pulled his funding. In May, the lab agreed with the government to retract three graphs supporting Liburdy's conclusions. Liburdy also agreed to a three-year ban on receiving federal funds.
But he denied doing anything wrong and said he agreed to the sanctions only because he couldn't afford to fight them in court.
"The scientific findings are not wrong. They criticized me for how I graphed the data," Liburdy told the Chronicle. "It is a matter of scientific opinion. They are not talking about the data being invalid. They are talking about the interpretation of the data."
The June report to Congress by a division of NIH said the electromagnetic-cancer link could not definitively be ruled out. While the link is tenuous, it said, exposure to the radiation "cannot be recognized as entirely safe."