George Washington University Professor David Michaels has been leading the crusade to enlighten Americans about what is happening to science -- and to the government programs designed to protect them against harmful substances. He has just published an article in Scientific American (reprinted here, but buy the magazine for the cool pictures). And, as icing on the cake, the SI article was highlighted in today's Washington Post "Magazine Reader" column (scroll down).
Last month I reviewed a longer, more "scholarly" article by Michaels about similar issues. The SI article is shorter and pithier. In fact, I have never read a better description of the challenges facing scientific inquiry seen in one small paragraph:
Few scientific challenges are more complex than understanding the health risks of a chemical or drug. Investigators cannot feed toxic compounds to people to see what doses cause cancer. Instead laboratory researchers rely on animal tests, and epidemiologists examine the human exposures that have already happened in the field. Both types of studies have many uncertainties, and scientists must extrapolate from the evidence to make causal inferences and recommend protective measures. Because absolute certainty is rarely an option, regulatory programs would not be effective if such proof were required. Government officials have to use the best available evidence to set limits for harmful chemicals and determine the safety of pharmaceuticals.Unfortunately, Michaels writes, corporate America is using that uncertainty -- manufacturing uncertainty, in fact -- to undermine the government's ability to protect its citizens.
Uncertainty is an inherent problem of science, but manufactured uncertainty is another matter entirely. Over the past three decades, industry groups have frequently become involved in the investigative process when their interests are threatened. If, for example, studies show that a company is exposing its workers to dangerous levels of a certain chemical, the business typically responds by hiring its own researchers to cast doubt on the studies. Or if a pharmaceutical firm faces questions about the safety of one of its drugs, its executives trumpet company sponsored trials that show no significant health risks while ignoring or hiding other studies that are much less reassuring. The vilification of threatening research as “junk science” and the corresponding sanctifi cation of industry-commissioned research as “sound science” has become nothing less than standard operating procedure in some parts of corporate America.Michaels uses the examples of beryllium, which causes seroius lung disease, the pain-reliever Vioxx, which was shown to cause heart attacks, and the appetite suppressant PPA, which caused hemorrhagic strokes in young women. Both drugs were eventually taken off the market, but only after years of delay and hundreds of needless deaths due to doubts "manufactured" by the drug companies. Beryllium, while adequately regulated for Department of Energy employees (thanks to Michaels, when he was Assistant Secretary of Energy under the Clinton administration), but OSHA's standard remains dangerously high for all other workers.
Vioxx, PPA and beryllium are only three of many examples. But that's not all:
Corporations have mounted campaigns to question studies documenting the adverse health effects of exposure to beryllium, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, chromium, benzene, benzidine, nickel, and a long list of other toxic chemicals and medications.And it gets worse:
Out of the almost 3,000 chemicals produced in large quantities (more than one million pounds annually), OSHA enforces exposure limits for fewer than 500. In the past 10 years the agency has issued new standards for a grand total of two chemicals; the vast majority of the others are still "regulated" by voluntary standards set before 1971, when the newly created agency adopted them uncritically and unchanged. New science has had no impact on them. I conclude that successive OSHA administrators have simply recognized that establishing new standards is so time- and labor-intensive, and will inevitably call forth such orchestrated opposition from industry, that it is not worth expending the agency's limited resources on the effort.Finally, although Scientific American is hardly known for its radical prose, Michaels pulls no punches when it comes to identifying the political villians of this tragedy:
Industry groups have tried to manipulate science no matter which political party controls the government, but the efforts have grown more brazen since George W. Bush became president. I believe it is fair to say that never in our history have corporate interests been as successful as they are today in shaping science policies to their desires.Finally, before switching off the computer, scroll down and check out yesterday's article once more about the battles that David Egilman has been fighting to publicize corporate efforts to conceal damning health effects. After all, if the information isn't out there in the first place, they don't have to go to all the trouble to manufacture doubt.
Bottom line: Two Thumbs Up. Go buy this article (or at least print it). There's much more of value there than I have the energy to describe. I'm putting it on the list of articles to save and re-read before going on vacation this summer with your obnoxious brother-in-law who listens to talk-radio and complains about "junk science" all the time.