Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Wall St. Journal Letters Defending and Attacking Barry Levy

The Wall St. Journal’s tirade against the American Public Health Association’s award winner, Dr. Barry Levy, has generated mail: some very good and some very bad.

You may recall that the Journal condemned the APHA last week for giving Levy its most prestigious award. The condemnation was based on the opinion of a judge who seemed to have little understanding that in court trials, when scientific experts are asked to review records for signs of asbestosis or silicosis, it means they're asked to review records, not physically examine patients.

The Journal published a letter responding to its editorial by Michael Silverstein, Chairman of the Occupational Safety and Health Section of the APHA, pointing out the Journal's ignorance:
Your editorial failed to note that Dr. Levy's role as a scientific expert in court was well within the mainstream of medical and legal practice. It is standard practice for experts on both the plaintiff and defendant sides of legal cases to review records provided to them and give their professional judgment to the attorneys and the court. This is an accepted and essential part of our litigation process on complex scientific issues. It was in this context that Dr. Levy reviewed a series of records and gave his opinion as to whether the information in each case met the standard criteria for silicosis. In doing so he was serving as an expert witness, not a treating physician.

Dr. Levy proceeded carefully through a two-stage review process. First, he made a preliminary judgment regarding each case file and determined that more than 450 of them had no merit and deserved no further consideration. For the remaining ones he outlined a protocol for further evaluation that would allow for more definitive conclusions. He provided this to the plaintiff attorneys and advised that if they arranged for this further evaluation he would review the additional records. He did this for more than 1,100 individuals.

It is important to understand that scientific experts who provide this important service for our court system typically rely on records prepared by others. Dr. Levy did his best to ensure that the records he reviewed were prepared properly, but he did not have control of the others involved in this litigation. He rendered his judgments honestly, openly and fairly. If he had an "agenda" it was simply to review the records and answer the specific question he was asked: Do these cases meet the medical criteria for silicosis?
Meanwhile, for a little "balance," the Journal also published a letter from Elizabeth M. Whelan, M.D., President of the American Council on Science and Health. ACSH is a corporate funded organization that comes to the "enthusiastic defense of virtually every chemical or additive backed by a major corporate interest."
Dr. Levy's main "achievement" has been his help in suing corporations and extracting fines or settlements from them to be distributed primarily to plaintiffs' attorneys and experts like Dr. Levy.

The criteria for this APHA award are fully consistent with those of the Harvard School of Public Health, which in October bestowed its highest award for public health achievement -- the Julius Richmond Award -- on environmental activist Erin Brockovich, widely viewed as the poster child for junk science. Ms. Brockovich worked with plaintiffs' lawyers to sue Pacific Gas & Electric -- claiming that trace emissions of chromium-6 from company plants caused a spectrum of diseases among residents of Hinkley, Calif. Although there was never any scientific evidence of a causal link between the chemical and ill health in the community, Ms. Brockovich and her colleagues were successful in negotiating a $330 million settlement in this case.

Apparently, Harvard felt this "achievement" -- which did not prevent even one premature disease or death -- was so stellar that it merited the Richmond Award, which is given to individuals "who have promoted and achieved high standards for public health."
Yes, Erin Brockovich is "widely viewed as the poster child for junk science"-- assuming by "widely," you mean "from one side of the corporate boardroom to the other. Personally, I'd wager that if you polled 100 people, somewhere around 98 of them would consider Erin Brockovich a heroine. Also, the chemical that was the subject of Ms. Brockovich's "junk science" was hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical that is so poorly regulated by OSHA, that a federal court took the rare step of ordering OSHA to issue a more effective standard by this coming January 18.

But the most fundamental thing that Whelan fails to understand is that, absent any kind of effective regulation of chemical exposure in the workplace or in the environment in this country, lawsuits are one of the few remaining ways to send a strong message to chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, asbestos manufacturers and polluters that there is a serious penalty to be paid for hiding evidence, lying and exposing people to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, lung disease and other serious health problems.

In other words, this whole tempest has nothing to do with "junk science," and everything to do with fatally weakening the one weapon that common citizens still have to fight back against corporate poisoning: our legal system.

And no one deserves awards and public recognition more than people like Erin Brockovich and Barry Levy who have effectively used our legal system to defend the rights and health for workers and communities in this country.