The Environmental Protection Agency has appointed a special team to review the work of a scientist whose research was instrumental in setting a major air-quality standard but who falsified test results for another government agency.
The scientist, Dr. Wilbert S. Aronow, recently was barred from doing further medical testing for the government after the Food and Drug Administration discovered that he had falsified data on an experimental heart drug.
In setting its air standards for carbon monoxide, a byproduct of fuel burning, the EPA relied heavily on Aronow's studies of the pollutant's effects on victims of angina pectoris, a heart condition usually characterized by sudden chest pains.
FDA officials began investigating Aronow in 1979, after a medical officer said the results of Aronow's studies on the heart drug were too perfect and "not believable." Aronow later told an FDA official that he had "fudged" some laboratory reports. In March the agency disqualified him from doing further medical testing for the government unless he receives specific permission from the FDA commissioner.
Sheldon Meyers, director of the EPA's office of air-quality planning and standards, confirmed that his agency sent a team of scientists to meet with Aronow last month "when we read that Aronow had done some kooky things."
He said, however, that the EPA has "no reason to believe anything was wrong" with Aronow's work and that the agency has corroborating evidence from other researchers on the health effects of carbon monoxide.
Aronow, who is director of cardiovascular research at the Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, said yesterday that he has given EPA investigators copies of his original research.
"The data are excellent," he said. "The data can't be questioned. Carbon monoxide is not good for patients who have heart disease."
The disclosures, however, have prompted a new outcry from some critics of the carbon monoxide standard, particularly those in communities that have been unable to meet the stringent standard after more than a decade.
"If there is a health problem, we're willing to deal with it, but we want some scientific evidence that there is," said Marilyn Stanton, a member of the Air Pollution Control Authority in Spokane County, Wash., who has campaigned for several years to get the standard relaxed.
Stanton expressed her concerns Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the nomination of William D. Ruckelshaus to be EPA administrator. Stanton asked the panel to get Ruckelshaus' assurances that the carbon monoxide standard will be reexamined.
The air-quality standard for carbon monoxide is 9 parts per million, averaged over eight hours, with a one-hour maximum of 35 parts per million. It was set in 1971 on the basis of a study, which was not by Aronow, that the EPA later acknowledged had not been duplicated, despite several attempts.
An area is considered out of compliance if the carbon monoxide in its air exceeds that standard more than once a year. Stanton says Spokane's air exceeds the standard "30 or 40 times a year," largely because it is located in a river valley subject to air inversions.
Spokane County is one of 472 counties threatened with a cutoff of federal grants because it failed to meet the standard by last Dec. 31, the deadline set by the Clean Air Act. While Congress is likely to extend that deadline when it reauthorizes the act, the legislation has been mired for more than two years on other issues, including a House proposal to double the allowable automobile emissions of carbon monoxide.
In 1980, EPA proposed tightening the one-hour standard from 35 parts per million to 25. The agency cited several additional studies to support the tougher standard, especially one by Aronow that showed carbon monoxide at levels above that could be harmful to angina patients.
EPA officials said the report on Aronow is expected later this month. Meanwhile, the agency is completing work on its proposed new carbon monoxide standard. Meyers said the standard is likely to be in "about the same" form as the 1980 proposal.