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How industry shanghaied science

Friday, May 9, 2008

David Michaels: Doubt is Their ProductA review of Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels.

Recent EWG research highlighted how conflicts of interest among members of EPA review panels have weakened governmental safety standards on toxic chemicals in the environment and in everyday consumer products. Outrage over long-standing reliance on “science for hire” by the chemical industry has prompted Congress to investigate EPA’s procedures for reviewing toxic chemicals, including PBDE flame retardants and bisphenol A.

These examples are just a small window into how great the tampering and influence of the chemical industry has been over EPA regulation of toxic chemicals. A new book by David Michaels, an epidemiologist and the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, documents a seemingly endless list of examples of mercenary scientists misleading the general public and the regulatory community about the true dangers of chemical exposures, starting from lead, asbestos, and tobacco, and continuing to chromium, berillium, perchlorate, benzene, plastics chemicals, and various other environmental and occupational health hazards.

The book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the best application of science in the interests of promoting public health. For a great review, readers can go to the article by Newsweek's Sharon Begley, “Whitewashing Toxic Chemicals.”

One stunning quote from the book describes the tricks of the trade that industry lobby and product defense firms use to derail the regulatory process:

They profit by helping corporations minimize public health and environmental protection and fight claims of injury and illness. In field after field, year after year, this same handful of individuals and companies comes up again and again… They have on their payrolls (or can bring in on a moment’s notice) toxicologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, risk assessors, and any other professionally trained, media-savvy experts deemed necessary. They and the larger, wealthier industries for which they work go through the motions we expect of the scientific enterprise, salting the literature with their questionable reports and studies. Nevertheless, it is all a charade. The work has one overriding motivation: advocacy for the sponsor’s position in civil court, the court of public opinion, and the regulatory arena [where these studies benefit their sponsors] not because they are good work that the regulatory agencies have to take seriously but because they clog the machinery and slow down the process. Public health interests are beside the point. Follow the science wherever it leads? Not quite. This is science for hire, period, and it is extremely lucrative.

Only by discovering the facts behind the scene and by bringing to light the true motivation of profit-driven public relations campaigns can we promote and defend the health of the environment and the safety of consumer products. For a veteran in the subject who may have participated in some of the struggles described in Defending Science, or for a new member of the environmental and occupational health community, this book is a great introduction to the state of the field – and the battles ahead that still need to be fought.