Study of air quality around Damien Hirst’s artwork retracted — against most authors’ wishes

via Flickr Commons
Damien Hirst’s “Away From The Flock” — exhibited at Tate Britain, via Flickr Commons

The corresponding author of the study that detected toxic leaks from the work of prominent British artist Damien Hirst has now retracted it — but most of his co-authors disagree with the decision.

The April Analytical Methods study was covered extensively by the media when it suggested staff at Damien Hirst’s 2012 exhibition at Tate Gallery in London of dead animals embalmed in formaldehyde were being exposed to higher than recommended levels of the carcinogen. 

Tate and Hirst’s company, Science Limited, immediately objected to the results; we’ve obtained what appears to be letter from a lawyer for Science Limited to the corresponding author of the paper — Pier Giorgio Righetti of the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy — saying it was “deeply concerned and troubled by the claims” in the paper.

Last month, the journal issued an expression of concern (EOC) for the paper, nothing the data may not be reliable, and on July 15, Righetti announced in a joint statement with Hirst’s company that he will be retracting his study.

Now, the paper has been officially retracted, noting more recent measurements show formaldehyde levels to be much lower than originally reported. But most of Righetti’s co-authors disagree with the decision, the notice says: 

It should be noted that co-authors Gleb Zilberstein, Emmanuil Baskin, Uriel Maor and Roman Zilberstein do not agree to this retraction and the following author was contacted but did not respond: Shoumo Zhang.

We’ve contacted the four authors who disagreed with the retraction but haven’t heard back.

Righetti told us he didn’t understand why his co-authors disagree with the retraction:

It is a fact that all people involved in all experiments repeated on June 28 in London agreed that the data on the levels of formaldehyde fumes at the Tates in 2012 were overestimated by at least one order of magnitude…

Here’s the backstory: The paper found the air around the exhibition contained 5 parts per million (ppm) of formaldehyde, significantly higher than the 0.5 ppm recommended exposure limit — and at levels that could cause serious symptoms, according to a statement Science Limited issued after publication:

…at the levels reported by this journal, your eyes would be streaming and you would be in serious physical discomfort. No such complaints were made to us during the show – or at any other shows or sites featuring the formaldehyde works.

According to the retraction notice, however, more recent experiments detected formaldehyde levels around the exhibition at only 0.1 ppm (double ambient air levels of 0.05 ppm formaldehyde).

We’ve obtained a letter dated April 22 from a lawyer representing Hirst’s company, Science Limited, which tells Righetti that Hirst has also taken formaldehyde measurements:

Please explain how your device produced a reading of 5ppm when the maximum reading that our client has measured during installation in a controlled environment of the artwork is 2ppm.

We’ve contacted both Science Limited and the firm cited in the letter to confirm its legitimacy, but haven’t heard back.

A spokesperson from the Health and Safety Executive, an independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness in the UK, told us that the higher reading of 2ppm is within current limits set by legislation:

The current UK workplace exposure limit (WEL) for formaldehyde is two parts per million (2ppm) or 2.5 mg/m3, time weighted average over eight hours. The short-term limit (averaged over ten minutes) is the same as above.

However, the spokesperson added that

formaldehyde is under review in the EU with proposals for a new limit currently under discussion.

Here’s the retraction notice, published on August 11:

I, the corresponding author, hereby wholly retract this Analytical Methods article. Further testing has been carried out and clear evidence was found that the reported findings presented are unreliable as a result of errors made in the data analysis. Following publication of this Analytical Methods article the findings were challenged. As a result further experiments were carried out on formaldehyde artworks, using the system in the article and an industry standard commercially available sensor. These more recent experiments showed that the levels of formaldehyde detected by both sensors did not exceed 0.1 ppm. This was 0.05 ppm above the measured ambient level of formaldehyde and below the limit of 2 ppm set by Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations 2002 (as amended). However, the measured values given by the sensors in close proximity to the artworks were not in agreement with the formaldehyde levels predicted by the system, as reported in the article. Therefore, the claim in the article that the level of formaldehyde fumes reached up to 5 ppm is no longer supported and the data presented in this article should be disregarded. The cause of the original error was attributed to shortcomings in the chemical mapping calculations used, which extrapolates from the measured data points to generate a map of formaldehyde concentration in the surrounding area. As such, it is now believed that the levels of predicted formaldehyde presented in this article were overestimated by at least 1 order of magnitude and that there was never any risk to the public.

Fig. 2–4 have also been removed from the manuscript as permission from the copyright holder was not granted.

This retraction supersedes the information provided in the Expression of Concern related to this article. Signed: P. G. Righetti, 09 August 2016.

It should be noted that co-authors Gleb Zilberstein, Emmanuil Baskin, Uriel Maor and Roman Zilberstein do not agree to this retraction and the following author was contacted but did not respond: Shoumo Zhang.

A spokesperson for Hirst referred us to the joint statement released with Righetti last month, which reads:

Mr Hirst’s company, Science Ltd, investigated the claims, in the process consulting with Professor of Physical Chemistry at Oxford University, Claire Vallance. Science Ltd and the authors of the Paper cooperated to conduct further tests on formaldehyde artworks using the equipment referred to in the Paper as well as commercially available equipment used by Science Ltd to test the presence of formaldehyde fumes.

It goes on to say:

None of the tests showed readings of formaldehyde higher than 0.1 ppm (which is 0.05 ppm above the ambient background level of 0.05 ppm). The recommended maximum exposure level under legislation is 2 ppm.

Vallance previously told us:

I looked very thoroughly at the testing procedures used by Damien Hirst’s company Science Ltd, at the independent testing they have commissioned, and at the new sensor reported in the paper, we carried out detailed comparative tests of formaldehyde levels near both sealed artworks and open formaldehyde tanks, and I am completely confident that we understand the source of error and that there were no high levels of formaldehyde around the artworks at any stage.

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