NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Researcher Faked Data On Cancer Link With Power Lines

July 28, 1999

In 1992, Robert P. Liburdy, of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California, published research claiming to have found a possible mechanism by which electromagnetic fields cause cancer. In 1995, the lab concluded he had created "artificial data" to bolster his thesis. However, Liburdy continued working until May 1999, shortly before the Office of Scientific Integrity finally issued its report.

Science policy analyst Elizabeth M. Whelan notes that the phantom risk of cancer from high voltage power lines resulted in huge expenditures on mitigation efforts -- such as burying power lines. By 1994, according to the General Accounting Office, an estimated $1 billion had been spent on mitigation. Such efforts were encouraged by Liburdy's findings.

Top scientific groups have repeatedly found no evidence of danger from power lines. But activist groups demanded action, relying in part on Liburdy's research. A federal investigator says that "nobody would have paid any attention" if Liburdy hadn't gotten the results he did.

  • Liburdy reported data indicating that electromagnetic fields alter the entry of calcium across a cell's surface membrane -- a conclusion possible only by eliminating data that didn't support the theory.
  • He collected $3.3 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.
  • Liburdy is reported to disagree vigorously with the misconduct findings and protests his innocence.
  • As part of a federal settlement, he has agreed to make no applications for federal grants for three years and has agreed not to contest the findings of administrative proceedings.

The exposure of Liburdy's malfeasance should sound an alarm about the objectivity of environmental health researchers, says Whelan. In misconduct cases, the federal government can bring civil or criminal charges -- and the defendant can be fined and sentenced to jail. In this case, federal officials concluded the administrative remedy was sufficient.

Source: William J. Broad, "Data Tying Cancer to Electric Power Found to Be False," New York Times, July 24, 1999; Elizabeth M. Whelan (American Council on Science and Health), "Regulatory Power Is the Dangerous Kind," Wall Street Journal, July 27, 1999.


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