Hung Out to Dry? Academic research ‘partnerships’ and the Wiarton water experiment

Photo: YiLing Chen-Josephson, Presents & Law,

By Angela Regnier

August 2006

“I would like to be able to drink my water without fear and wash my clothes with no further damage.”


Six years ago, a drinking water experiment in small town Ontario resulted in residents complaining of damage to laundered clothes, taste and odour, and illness. Although the complaints attracted national media attention and resulted in the early termination of the study, the subsequent academic write-ups of the experiment declared it a success. The chemical company sponsoring the experiment and the university hosting it received a national award, and the study is now being cited in recommended revisions to federal drinking water guidelines and provincial standards. Requests by the Canadian Federation of Students to initiate an investigation into the Wiarton experiment publications have been dismissed repeatedly by the university and the relevant federal granting council.

The Drinking Water Research Group

The Toronto-based ERCO Worldwide is a major player in the pulp and paper industry. For decades, the company has focused on promoting and producing chlorine dioxide for use as an alternative to chlorine for pulp and paper bleaching. But you will never see a truck or rail car transporting chlorine dioxide: because of the chemical’s explosive and unstable nature, it must be generated on-site. ERCO supplies the pulp industry with the chemical generators and precursor materials needed to bleach pulp with chlorine dioxide.

Business, however, had peaked, leading ERCO to seek out greener pastures for the chlorine dioxide business. ERCO’s 2003 Annual Report to its shareholders lamented the saturation of the North American pulp market, but saw the potential for growth in two areas: the Asian pulp market and the “industrial and municipal water treatment” sector.

To explore the latter, in the 1990s ERCO had begun working with the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. At that time, according to the Canadian federal granting agency, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), “ERCO’s research team began to develop other applications for chlorine dioxide —- spawning a new initiative at the university: the Drinking Water Research Group.” According to the Group’s literature, its primary objective is to bring together industry, utilities, and university researchers to develop new innovations in water quality, treatment, and distribution.

Experimenting with Wiarton’s water

Better known for its late groundhog Willie and his annual “atmospheric-science-meets-zoology” predictions of seasonal duration, Wiarton, Ontario was the site of an ambitious experiment on its drinking water system from June to August 2000. Chlorine was replaced with chlorine dioxide (produced by a newly-patented ERCO generator) as the Wiarton water treatment plant’s drinking water disinfectant. The experiment was conducted by ERCO Worldwide in partnership with the University of Toronto, and its goals were three-fold:

(1)to field-test the generator’s performance,

(2) to “demonstrate the transfer of the Wiarton water system from chlorine to chlorine dioxide in terms of taste, odor and water quality,” and

(3)to test the suitability of chlorine dioxide as an alternative drinking water disinfectant. [1]

The University of Toronto did not require Research Ethics Board approval for the experiment.

“Fish & guinea pig died in August”

On August 22, 2000, national, regional, and local newspapers reported Wiarton residents’ complaints of “laundry stains.” “Bleach stains appear on Wiarton clothes” was the headline in the Globe & Mail. The National Post ran a story headlined “Residents of Ontario town are seeing spots: Water blamed for causing stains on clothing.” “Drinking water experiment upsets residents,” reported the Toronto Star.

That same morning at the Wiarton water treatment plant, a closed-door meeting was convened with representatives from ERCO, the University of Toronto, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and the Ontario Clean Water Agency (the provincial crown corporation contracted as the operating authority for the plant). Minutes from the meeting reveal that “Chlorine dioxide addition post-filters was terminated at 10:30AM on 8/22/00, two weeks prior to the scheduled ramp down date of September 4th. [This action was undertaken in order to prevent any further clothing discoloration cases].” (The text in brackets is as it appears in the minutes.)

A day earlier, on August 21, 2000, a group of Wiarton residents presented a letter to the Mayor and Town Council describing their concerns: “We have experienced severe damage to clothing laundered in Wiarton water and have noticed strong chlorine smells when running household taps. If our water is damaging our clothes, what is it going to do to our health? The very obvious damage to fabric makes it difficult for us to have confidence in our water safety. Some of us are choosing to consume bottled water until this situation is rectified.” The letter concludes with a list of questions, the first of which is “Why were the town’s people not informed of the change to chlorine dioxide and the research project on new technology being used in Wiarton…�”

“Despite its early termination and the reported problems, the project was later described in University of Toronto media releases as “novel and successful.”“

The Town Council resolved on August 29, 2000 to instruct the parties involved in the Wiarton study to conduct a door-to-door survey “to determine the extent to which clothing discolouration and other problems have occurred.” The results of the two-question survey, analyzed by the University of Toronto Drinking Water Research Group, noted taste and odour complaints, bleach stains and discoloured laundry. In response to the question “Have you noticed any changes in your tap water?” thirty-five percent answered “yes.” In response to the question “Have you noticed any changes in the results of your laundry?” forty percent answered “yes.”

Respondents also provided written comments such as “taste chlorine in water, taste [sic] terrible, also could smell chlorine”; “could smell bleach smell from toilet”; “fish & guinea pig died in August”; “strong odour (like cat urine) when water is being use[d] (showers, washing machine, etc.), permiating [sic] whole house. Very embar®assing!”; and “water should be clean but not to the point of not being drinkable.”

Although the University of Toronto Drinking Water Research Group conducted tests in an attempt to duplicate the laundry damage phenomenon, records of these laboratory tests, held by the Ministry of the Environment, have been withheld owing to objections raised by the University of Toronto and ERCO. Records obtained from other sources, however, indicate that the researchers could only duplicate the laundry damage phenomenon with levels of chlorine dioxide at or above 0.8 milligrams per litre (mg/L).

While there are no federal drinking water guidelines for chlorine dioxide use in Canada, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has set 0.8 mg/L of chlorine dioxide as the maximum concentration that may leave a drinking water plant, a violation of which “may harm human health based on short-term exposures. Certain groups, including fetuses, infants and young children, may be especially susceptible to nervous system effects from excessive chlorine dioxide exposure.” Although an instrument at the Wiarton water treatment plant continuously measured chlorine dioxide levels in the drinking water during the study, data from this device have not been published and have not been located in response to Freedom of Information requests.

A “novel and successful” experiment

While there was extensive newspaper media coverage of the complaints, it has proven impossible to locate even one publication on the experiment authored by the investigators that describes any of the problems reported. Indeed, despite its early termination and the reported problems, the project was later described in University of Toronto media releases as “novel and successful.” The 2002 Annual Report by the Chair of the Department of Civil Engineering describes how his department’s researchers “improve[d] Wiarton, Ontario’s drinking water using chlorine dioxide.” In two publications, University of Toronto and ERCO authors concluded, “the resulting drinking water quality was found to be significantly superior when compared to chlorine disinfection.”2 One of these articles further declared, “It is the project team belief that the town of Wiarton was provided with likely the best quality drinking surface water in Ontario during the period of the trial.”3

A peer-reviewed journal article co-authored by University of Toronto and ERCO researchers noted that “It was also critical to monitor consumer complaints, since specific taste and odor problems may be associated with chlorine dioxide.” The authors then went on to state, however, that “No consumer taste and odor complaints were reported during the study period.”4 The article concluded, “Chlorine dioxide represents a valuable tool to produce high quality water and is a strong alternative to chlorine for certain [drinking water] distribution systems.” Last year, in its update of federal drinking water guidelines, Health Canada cited this paper as an example of how chlorine dioxide can “maintain water quality” in a drinking water system.

In October 2003, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awarded a $25,000 Synergy Award to the project’s principal university researcher, another University of Toronto researcher, and ERCO Worldwide for their work together on chlorine dioxide. The Synergy Award was created in the late 1990s to “celebrate and focus attention on the many successes that had begun to emerge from the collaborations between private-sector companies and university researchers funded by NSERC” (NSERC Synergy Awards for Innovation, 2003).

Blowing the whistle

In January 2003, Christopher Radziminski, a University of Toronto alumnus formerly supervised by the principal researcher of the Wiarton project, filed a formal complaint with the Department of Civil Engineering. Having graduated in November 2000 with a Master’s degree focused on the disinfection of drinking water using chlorine dioxide (a project unrelated to the Wiarton experiment), Radziminski later discovered two journal articles on which he was listed as a co-author, both of which had been authored, submitted, and published without his knowledge or consent. When presented with good-faith allegations of plagiarism, data manipulation and misrepresentation, the University refused repeatedly to conduct a formal investigation consistent with its own procedural rules. Radziminski’s subsequent efforts to correct the public record through contact with the editors of the journals in which his work was published was met with a threatened defamation suit from a Bay Street law firm retained by the University.

Increasingly concerned about the two journal articles on which he was named as a co-author, the University’s threatened suit, and the handling of the Wiarton experiment which had occurred while he was a Master’s student, Radziminski contacted NSERC to request that it step in to protect him from retaliation and ask the university to undertake an investigation. NSERC denied Radziminski’s request, stating that NSERC “has no mandate to provide protection for whistleblowers in Canada,” and that the whistleblower’s complaints were “purely a private matter.” Of note, Radziminski, who now works as the acting Municipal Water Quality Coordinator for the Greater Vancouver Regional District, was funded by NSERC during his studies. His former supervisor has been awarded over $500,000 in NSERC funding and is chair of the NSERC research grants selection committee for civil engineering.

Frustrated by the lack of response to his allegations, Radziminski sought the support of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). On behalf of the whistleblower, the CFS has made several formal appeals to NSERC. In July 2005, the CFS contacted NSERC to request that they require the University of Toronto to undertake a formal investigation into the Wiarton experiment publications. Subsequent requests to NSERC were made in October 2005 and April 2006.

“Currently there exists no overarching body to oversee research integrity, and no mechanism to protect academic whistleblowers in Canada.”

NSERC, like the other federal granting councils, requires that universities receiving NSERC funding have appropriate controls “�to ensure that research is conducted in compliance with all applicable legal, ethical, accountability, and financial management controls” (Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Toronto and NSERC). To date, NSERC maintains that it is “satisfied” with the University’s compliance with the research integrity framework and has repeatedly dismissed the Federation’s request for an investigation into the Wiarton experiment. The CFS, however, continues to assert that NSERC is not fulfilling its statutory obligations, and is now pursuing other avenues to ensure that NSERC carries out its public duty and that the University of Toronto complies with its research ethics policies.

The granting councils’ policies on research are the only guidelines in place by the federal government for overseeing adherence to ethical guidelines in university research The Ottawa Citizen reported on March 16, 2006 that the federal granting councils (including NSERC) have awarded over $12 million to “projects in which researchers have been found to be violating research ethics or integrity rules since 2003.”

Public-private research partnerships

The Wiarton experiment placed public health in the balance, with results that, at the very least, should have raised concerns. The University of Toronto considers the experiment a “novel and successful” initiative, but the reporting and disclosure issues detailed here demonstrate the tenuous nature of even celebrated industry-university research partnerships.

Such private-public research partnerships are increasingly the norm at Canada’s public universities. Since the late 1980s, the federal government has pursued a research model for Canadian universities based on university-industry partnerships. But this agenda, in the words of the 2006 Expert Panel on Commercialization, a federal advisory body, to “transform knowledge and technologies into new products,” is frightfully shortsighted given the current dearth of mechanisms available for protecting the public interest.

Corporate sponsors can exert a great deal of influence over results through the widespread application of nondisclosure provisions to research contracts, by pressuring researchers to yield favourable results, or by using the more subtle method of “asking the ‘right’ questions.” In June 2005, Nature published the results of a survey of over 3,000 researchers revealing that more than a third admitted to committing some form of research fraud, frequently under pressure from a research sponsor. Furthermore, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a study that examined research protocols�the terms under which research will be conducted and disseminated—-indicating that multinational pharmaceutical sponsors “had the potential to prevent publication in half of the trials and had recourse to practical or legal obstacles in most of the others.” “Increasingly,” writes psychiatrist David Healy, “scientific research only sees the light of day if it coincides with market interests.” [5]

Currently there exists no overarching body to oversee research integrity, and no mechanism to protect academic whistleblowers in Canada—-unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom. Radziminski has been attempting to expose the truth for over three years, but has encountered countless roadblocks along the way. Radziminski says he is “horrified by the utter lack of support for those who speak out for research integrity and the public interest.”

The CFS recently recommended to the federal government amendments to the Federal Accountability Act to include university researchers under federal whistleblower protection. While an amendment was put forward, the motion was defeated. The CFS has vowed to continue to pressure the federal government to augment the role of the granting councils in enforcing research integrity in Canadian universities.

Without a federal research integrity policy that includes whistleblower protection and improved mechanisms to protect university research from corporate interference, the CFS fears that academic integrity and the public interest have both taken a backseat to marketability and profitability.

As the residents of Wiarton, Ontario know all too well, when private profit trumps public good, the truth simply won�t come out in the wash.

Angela Regnier is the National Deputy Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.


1. Andrews, R, B Karney and G Ranger (2001), “Chlorine dioxide trial as a post disinfectant in Wiarton, Ontario.” Fourth International Symposium on Chlorine Dioxide, Feb. 15-16, 2001, Las Vegas, Nevada.

2. Andrews, R et al. (2001), op. cit. and Muttoo, TB and DA Dean (2001), “Development of chlorine dioxide gas transport contactor (ERCO R101 Generator) for use in drinking water disinfection.” North American Membrane Society (NAMS), May 15-20, 2001, Lexington, Kentucky.

3. Andrews, R et al. (2001), op. cit.

4. Volk, CJ, R Hofmann, C Chauret, GA Gagnon, G Ranger and RC Andrews (2002), “Implementation of chlorine dioxide disinfection: Effects of the treatment change on drinking water quality in a full-scale distribution system.” Journal of Environmental Engineering and Science 1: 323-330.

5. Smith, R (2005), “Medical journals are an extension of the marketing arm of pharmaceutical companies.” PLoS Medicine 2(5): e138; Wadman, M (2005), “One in three scientists confesses to having sinned.” Nature 435: 718; G’tzsche, PC, A Hr’bjartsson, HK Johansen, MT Haahr, DG Altman and AW Chan (2006), “Constraints on publication rights in industry-initiated clinical trials.” JAMA 295(14): 1645-1646; Healy, D (2002), “Conflicting Interests in Toronto: Anatomy of a Controversy at the Interface of Academia and Industry.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45(2): 250-263.

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