At the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, One Professor’s Flouride Scandal Stinks

Nami Sung

This seemingly innocuous tube contains an element that may cause cancer.

It was the first time that Dr. Chester Douglass, the Department Chair of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, had spoken publicly about the controversy surrounding his research on the connection between fluoride and bone cancer. Fox 25 news cameras followed him to his car on a cold day in February 2006.

“Is there a cover-up here?” asked Fox 25 investigative reporter Mike Beaudet.

“This report, from Harvard Medical School, will answer that question,” Douglass responded, brandishing an envelope which ostensibly contained a draft of the report of the investigation that the Medical School had launched in June 2005.

Over a year later, that report has yet to be released to the public, though Harvard has publicly exonerated Douglass.

The investigation—and surrounding media controversy—occurred in response to allegations from a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, the Environmental Working Group (EWG). In a letter to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a government organization which funded Douglass’ $1.3 million dollar study researching the potential link between fluoride and osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, the EWG claimed that Douglass’ final report contained “potential, serious misrepresentations of research results.”

This misrepresentation, the EWG alleged, stemmed from the fact that Douglass’ report concluded that there was no significant correlation between fluoride and osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Yet a section of a two-page outline of the report, entitled “Publications,” listed a 2001 doctoral thesis written by Elise B. Bassin and supervised by Douglass.

Bassin’s thesis did observe a connection between fluoride in tap water and bone cancer. “Among males, exposure to fluoride at or above the target level was associated with an increased risk of developing osteosarcoma,” Bassin wrote. Bassin and Douglass started with the same raw data, but came to different conclusions.

It appeared that Douglass might have buried Bassin’s findings.

Janice Strother, the NIEHS Ethics Coordinator to whom the EWG’s letter was addressed, says she turned the case over to Harvard. The school launched its investigation of Douglass on June 29, 2005.

Double the Conflict, Double the Fun

The plot thickened like old toothpaste when another element surfaced. Douglass had served as editor-in-chief of the Colgate Oral Care Report since 1997, which according to its website “is supported by the Colgate-Palmolive Company for oral care professionals.”

Colgate toothpaste, of course, contains fluoride, and it didn’t take long for the EWG and another group, the Fluoride Action Network (FAN), to cry conflict of interest.

Douglass’ donation of around $1 million to Harvard in 2001 also came to light, sparking debate over the propriety of a school conducting an investigation against a major donor.

“Our view, in light of the high level of secrecy that has surrounded Harvard’s review, it highlights yet another conflict of interest,” says Michael P. Connett, project director of FAN. “Harvard’s investigating a guy who donated the university a million dollars.”

Harvard spokesman, John Lacey, wrote in an e-mail that “It is accurate that Chet Douglass made a gift of around $1 million to the dental school in 2001, but that was four years before the complaint was made and a review was launched.”

Connett also says that the substantial amount of funding Douglass received from the National Institute of Health might constitute an additional conflict of interest. “When all these grants are added together, it can be seen that Douglass brought in over $5 million dollars in NIH research funding between 1992 and 2004,” Cannett wrote in an e-mail.

Harvard’s review of Douglass took 13 months to complete. According to Lacey’s e-mail, two committees, comprised mainly of senior faculty members not from the HSDM, independently concluded that “Dr. Douglass did not commit research misconduct, and did not have a conflict-of-interest as editor of a newsletter produced by Colgate.”

After the committees compiled their report, it was sent to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which is a federal organization that monitors investigations of institutional research misconduct.

“After reviewing our report, they determined that no further investigation was required,” says Lacey.

In August 2006, Harvard released a four paragraph statement exonerating Douglass.

But where is the report?

Though Douglass can breathe easily now that both Harvard and the ORI have decided his case doesn’t warrant further investigation, his opponents are mystified and angered by Harvard’s handling of the issue.

“We would like to see some sort of rational explanation from Harvard as to how Douglass’ behavior did not constitute ethical misconduct,” says Connett. “Our view is that if Harvard has a good explanation here, why not say it?”

As of September 25, 2006, Lauren Sucher, Director of Public Affairs of the EWG was drafting a formal request to Interim President Derek C. Bok calling for the release of the investigation’s report. FAN’s letter-writing campaign has already resulted in 400-500 letters sent to the president to demand to see the report, according to Connett, including twenty Harvard alumnae.

But transparency is not likely. “The reviews are not publicly available, and the reason for this is that we provide confidentiality to everyone within the review process,” Lacey wrote in an e-mail.

“We’re all for academic freedom, but the tax payers of the U.S.—including you and me and your mom and dad—funded his research,” says Sucher. “Taxpayers have a right to know how the university came up with that finding.”

Tyler G. Neill ’07-’08, an environmental science and public policy concentrator who signed a letter to Bok demanding the report’s release, agrees. “It just seemed like a completely confidential process, which in a case like this I just don’t think is highly appropriate,” he says.

Appropriate or not, it doesn’t seem like Harvard’s budging this time. And after a year of waiting and perhaps worrying, Douglass can resume his research, which he says is most important to him.

Douglass respectfully declined to be interviewed because, as he wrote in an e-mail, “the goals of science would be best served by focusing on publishing our final results through the peer- reviewed process in scientific journals.”