U of S professor denies suppressing toxic pollution research for 3M

A globally-renowned University of Saskatchewan professor is denying allegations he worked for American corporation 3M to suppress research about cancer-causing chemicals.

Allegations against Prof. John Giesy contained in $850M legal case between State of Minnesota and 3M

University of Saskatchewan professor John Giesy is accused of suppressing research on cancer-causing chemicals for American company 3M. (University of Saskatchewan)

A globally-renowned University of Saskatchewan professor is denying allegations he worked for American corporation 3M to suppress research about cancer-causing chemicals.

John Giesy says the allegations are an attempt by the State of Minnesota and its Attorney General, Lori Swanson, to smear his reputation after he declined to serve as an expert for them in a lawsuit against 3M. The suit was settled last month after 3M agreed to pay $850 million.

"I categorically deny any and all accusations made by [the] plaintiff's attorneys looking to cash out on a situation," Giesy wrote in an email to CBC News.

At present, these are unproven allegations and there are no apparent grounds for a review.- emailed response from the University of Saskatchewan

Giesy, one of the world's top environmental toxicologists and a U of S Canada Research Chair, was not a party to the lawsuit, but his work and his internal emails formed part of the documentation submitted to the court.

"Despite spending most of his career as a professor at public universities, Professor Giesy has a net worth of approximately $20 million," states a memorandum to amend the complaint filed by Minnesota state lawyers last November.

"This massive wealth results at least in part from his long-term involvement with 3M for the purpose of suppressing independent scientific research."
Ryerson University business ethics professor Chris MacDonald says the allegations against University of Saskatchewan professor John Giesy are troubling. (supplied)

Attorney General Swanson's spokesperson, Ben Wogsland, said Giesy is mistaken. At no time did the state or its lawyers ask Giesy to serve as an expert or testify for them, he said.

"We did not ask him to be an expert or an expert witness," Wogsland said in an interview with CBC News.
Wogsland said they stand by the claims against Giesy in the court records.
"We basically used 3M's documents," he said.

University of Saskatchewan officials said there's no reason to review the allegations because they are "unproven," a stance questioned by experts on academic ethics.

"It certainly at least bears a closer look," said Chris MacDonald, a Ryerson University professor and editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

Giesy concealed nature of certain payments, says memorandum

Giesy was recruited by the U of S in 2006 to anchor a new $12-million toxicology centre. He's one of only 29 U of S faculty since 1950 to be named to the Royal Society of Canada.

Giesy has published more than 1,100 peer-reviewed articles and has been cited more than any other scientist in his field, according to his U of S biography. He was the first scientist to detect a host of environmental chemicals, including "perfluorinated compounds" or PFCs.

In his previous post at Michigan State University, Giesy began his extensive dealings with 3M, according to the allegations in the memorandum.
U of S professor John Giesy says he "categorically" denies "any and all accusations" that he worked for American corporation 3M to suppress research about cancer-causing chemicals. (University of Saskatchewan)

PFCs were central to 3M products such as Scotch Tape and Scotchgard spray. Among other benefits, PFC products protected carpets from stains and damage. The downside was that it doesn't break down easily if released into the environment.

We were not bribing anyone. No money was exchanged.- Prof. John Giesy

Over the decades, elevated PFC levels were detected in the land, water, wildlife and eventually human populations near the Minnesota-based company's plants and waste facilities, according to court documents. The State of Minnesota said 3M concealed this information, as well as the damaging effects, for decades.

According to the allegations in the memorandum, Giesy and other university scientists were central to this effort to "command the science" on PFCs.

The November memorandum filed by the state included emails between Giesy and 3M officials.

The memorandum claimed that Giesy did the following:

  • Received more than $2 million in grants and payments from 3M and internally described himself as a member of the 3M team while portraying himself as an "independent" editor of academic journals. Lists of payments are included in the documentation.
  • Concealed the nature of certain payments from 3M. In a 2008 email, Giesy stated: "I always listed these reviews as literature searches so that there was no paper trail to 3M."
  • Shared confidential academic manuscripts about PFCs with 3M employees.
  • Worked with 3M to prevent "bad" academic papers from being published. In another 2008 email, Giesy wrote that "…in litigation situations, they can be a large obstacle to refute." 
  • Worked on 3M's behalf to "buy favours" from other academics.

According to the allegations in the memorandum, these emails and other documentation reveal a "campaign to influence independent scientific research" in favour of 3M and its products.

'I was not in the business of trying to suppress any information,' says Giesy

In a detailed email response to CBC News, Giesy:

  • Did not dispute the amount he received in grants and payments. He said he worked with 3M on replacement products for PFCs and also worked with a private company affiliated with testing the products.
  • Said he isn't sure why he made the "no paper trail" reference. He said it may have been related to the Chinese government collecting data on companies. "I was not in the business of trying to suppress any information. Quite the contrary."
  • Said he did share a submitted academic manuscript with a 3M scientist while serving as a journal editor. Giesy said the measurements in the paper appeared incorrect. "I made the decision to ask for an opinion from the other person in the world who knew how to do the analyses of (chemical) PFOS correctly.  This was completely in my powers as the editor."
  • Said he did not suppress any academic papers to protect 3M from legal action. "I published all of the information in the peer-reviewed open literature" including evidence their chemical compound was a "cancer promoter."
  • Said he used the term "buy favours" as an "innocent turn of phrase." Giesy said it referred to his efforts to get 3M to help China test for PFCs in its environment. "We were not bribing anyone. No money was exchanged."

3M disputes characterization of Giesy

In an email to CBC News, 3M official Donna Fleming Runyon said the company "disagrees with [the state's] characterization of Dr. Giesy."

In documentation filed to the court, 3M disputed the claims it suppressed information. 3M said the concentrations of PFCs were too small to cause any negative effects. It cited a Minnesota health department study which disputed findings of increased cancer rates and other harm.

"We will continue our strong commitment to acting with integrity and conducting business in a sustainable way," Fleming Runyon said in the statement.

University of Saskatchewan says allegations are 'unproven'

U of S administration officials defended Giesy and his work.

"Prof. Giesy says during the entire time he researched PFCs under contracts with 3M, he was never directed to change a word in a paper or limited in any way as to what he could say or publish," states a U of S email to CBC News.

They said Giesy was "instrumental in the worldwide banning and regulating of PFCs."

The statement listed his many accomplishments globally for safeguarding the environment and human health. They said his work has resulted in the banning of 87 different chemicals in Canada alone.

"While the U of S looks to greater collaboration with industry, its governance structures ensure that industry partners cannot override our commitment to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research of a world-class standard," reads the statement.

In a separate email, the U of S stated: "At present, these are unproven allegations and there are no apparent grounds for a review."

U of S decision not to review 'mind boggling': ethicist

Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, reviewed the emails and other documentation. He called Giesy's responses "unconvincing."
University of Manitoba academic ethicist Arthur Schafer says the allegations against University of Saskatchewan professor John Giesy are the most serious he's ever seen. (supplied)

Schafer said if the allegations are true, it's the most "extensive information laundering campaign" he's ever seen.

He said it's "mind-boggling" the U of S will not review allegations of this magnitude.

"It's a very grave accusation, and deserves to be investigated by the University of Saskatchewan," Schafer said.

Fellow ethicist and Ryerson professor Chris MacDonald agreed there should be a review, calling the allegations "very worrisome."

MacDonald said there's nothing wrong with relationships between academics and industry, but the nature of that relationship must be fully transparent at all times.

MacDonald said some professors may unintentionally tailor their research to suit their corporate partners.

The allegations against Giesy are far more serious than that, he said.

"The particulars, the detail of the thing, and what seem to be some smoking gun emails, are perhaps distinctive," MacDonald said.

Lawsuit settled for $850 million with no admission of liability

The $850 million settlement was reached on the eve of a trial last week. The lawsuit originally sought $5 billion in damages. It will be paid in full by 3M to the State of Minnesota in the coming weeks. The settlement does not include an admission of liability.

According to statements from the government and 3M, the money will be used for cleanup, habitat rehabilitation and water-quality improvements in the area.

Portions of the lawsuit documentation and the settlement agreement are posted on the cover page of Swanson's website and of Minnesota's Hennepin County District Court.

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.