Monday, November 15, 2004

A New Low? Harassing Peer Reviewers

The United States may be entering a golden age of corporate freedom to act, unencumbered by government oversight in the form of new regulations or even effective enforcement of those protections still on the books. OSHA has issued no significant new regulations over the past four years, despite a desperate need to address “new” hazards, like ergonomics, reactive chemicals hazards, airborne diseases, and thousands of toxic chemicals. EPA standards and enforcement have been rolled back. Other government oversight agencies are facing similar problems.

Meanwhile, legislation like the Data Quality Act is further undermining agency’s ability to even issue information that warns workers and consumers about hazardous products.

What we are left with to guard our workplaces, environment, food and other products are independent researchers and activists, along with the journalists and writers who will bring that information to the public.

So it is particularly chilling to read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that chemical companies are not only going after the authors of such works, but even the peer reviewers:
Lawyers representing more than 20 chemical companies have taken the unusual step of issuing subpoenas to five peer reviewers of a scholarly book as part of litigation over the alleged health risks of a widely used chemical compound.

The peer reviewers, who are historians and health experts, have been summoned to be questioned next week in the case, which pits a former chemical worker who now suffers from cancer against the companies: the Dow Chemical Company, the Goodrich Corporation, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, the Monsanto Company, and Uniroyal Inc.

The book's publishers also received subpoenas, several months ago, to provide information about early drafts of the book and its peer review.

The civil case is in the discovery phase and is scheduled to go to trial in February in the U.S. District Court in Jackson, Miss. At issue in the subpoenas to the publishers and reviewers is the book Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, which was published in 2002 by the University of California Press and the Milbank Memorial Fund, a foundation dedicated to research on health policy.

The book's authors -- Gerald Markowitz, a history professor on two campuses of the City University of New York, and David Rosner, a professor of history and of public health at Columbia University -- analyzed internal industry documents from the 1950s through the 1990s.

In the book, they present evidence that in the late 1960s and early '70s, chemical-industry leaders failed to inform the government about a link that had been found in experiments with rats between exposure to a chemical called vinyl chloride monomer and cancer.

"Basically what we tell in the book," said Mr. Markowitz, "is how the industry kept this secret from the government and how they fought against regulation."
Now, of course, harassing scientists and authors is nothing new, as described by Dr. Barry Castleman, author of Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects on a listserve
Authors of historical accounts on occupational and environmental health subjects have been vigorously confronted by legions of lawyers with seemingly unlimited resources and billable time. No effort was spared, in my case with asbestos, to dredge through all manner of arguably relevant files, ask me about statements allegedly made by others, question me about whether I had prejudices against business executives and corporations, contact former employers before I became an independent consultant in 1975, etc., etc. In one deposition I was even asked about my religion, prompting the plaintiff's lawyer to immediately phone the judge to protest. I was interviewed as an example of an over-deposed expert witness by Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" -- 20 years and more than 300 depositions ago.
But this is the first time I’ve heard of peer reviews being subpoenaed. It’s not that any legal actions will befall the peer reviewers or authors. This is all about intimidation. Markowitz was deposed for 5 straight days. Who would want to volunteer to peer review a publication critical of industry, fearing that they would be dragged into court and harassed?