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FDL Book Salon Welcomes David Michaels: Doubt Is Their Product

I first realized the power — and evil — of the dreaded practitioners of “manufactured doubt” when I was working at OSHA in the late 1990’s on the ergonomics standard. That was the regulation that was going to address the plague of disabling back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and other musculoskeletal disorders that at that time – and still today – make up the most common source of injury among American workers.

In case the vision of a worker making 20,000 knife cuts a day in a chicken processing plant, or lifting 250 pound slippery patients all day long didn’t convince you that back, shoulder and wrist injuries were work-related, there were enough scientific studies to choke a horse. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health put out an analysis of the data in a book big enough to put the New York City telephone book to shame.

After 10 years of fighting industry opposition and a hostile Congress, the standard was issued in late 2000. Nevertheless, in one of the first actions of the Bush administration, the Republican Congress and George Bush repealed the standard. The main argument used by the Republicans and industry? Ergonomics is junk science, and not enough sound science. "We don’t know the exact amount of physical stress needed to cause carpal tunnel syndrome," industry-paid researchers argued. "We don’t know exactly how much weight a worker can lift to cripple her back."

The fact that we DID know more than enough to protect workers, even if we didn’t know EVERYTHING about causation, didn’t seem to matter. Despite two Congressionally mandated studies by the National Academy of Science that confirmed the relationship between work and musculoskeletal injuries, researchers also concluded (as researchers always do) that more study was needed. Surely, corporate America said, we can’t regulate something if “more study is needed.”

In Doubt is Their Product, George Washington University Professor, and former (Clinton Administration) Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Health and Safety, David Michaels has written a book that is essential (and fascinating) reading for anyone who wonders why it’s almost impossible for this country to protect its workers and citizens from the effects of harmful chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other phenomena — like global warming.

Needless to say, the ergonomics standard was not the first worker or consumer safeguard to fall under the ax of the industry’s “sound science” argument. In fact, as Michaels describes and documents, it was the tobacco industry that first made a religion out of creating doubt in order to fight off — or at least delay — government regulation. The title of Michael’s book comes from a 1969 memo from an executive of the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public."

I mean, after all, cigarette smoking may be associated with lung cancer, but that doesn’t mean it causes it:

What was the mechanism by which the tobacco smoke caused cancer? Were there other factors associated with both lung cancer and tobacco that might be responsible. Was there something in someone’s constitution (which today we would explain as genetic) that increased both lung cancer risk and the propensity to smoke?

You get the idea. As Michaels explains:

The industry understood that the public is in no position to distinguish good science from bad. Create doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Throw mud at the ‘‘antismoking’’ research under the assumption that some of it is bound to stick. And buy time, lots of time, in the bargain.

And that has been the recurring theme of those opposing any government protections ever since – whether talking obvious hazards like asbestos and beryllium, to others like Lead. Vinyl chloride, Chromium, Formaldehyde, Arsenic and Benzene. Pharmaceuticals, like Vioxx – and even global warming.

Of course, Brown and Williamson may have given a name to the tactic (and Michaels’ book), but they didn’t invent it. If you’ve read Deceit and Denial by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, you’ll find almost identical tactics since early last century throughout the history of lead and vinyl chloride – as well as asbestos.

If you learn nothing else from this book, know this: "Polluters and manufacturers of dangerous products tout ‘‘sound science,’’ but what they are promoting just sounds like science but isn’t." In other words, when you hear companies or politicians or government officials claim that they have not problem with regulating a chemical "as long as we’re basing any controls on ‘sound science,’" run screaming for the hills. According to Michaels, "Sound Science" is actually the "sanctification of its own bought-and- paid-for research," and "junk science" is "any research that might threaten corporate interests."

Now let me admit right here that a book about the scientific method, epidemiology and regulatory politics may not strike the average reader as choice summer reading. But that average reader would be wrong. Doubt is Their Product is a fairly quick read that not only gets the blood stirring with stories of corporate malevolence — but Michaels also describes the victims of that corporate malevolence — the thousands of children who died of Reyes syndrome because the pharmaceutical industry successfully delayed putting warning labels on aspirin bottles, the thousands of heart attacks because Merck covered up studies that showed that Vioxx caused heart attacks.

In fact, the book is filled with stories so gripping (and depressing) that that you’ll want to run out and buy copies for your relatives who assure you that if that drug or chemical was bad for you, surely the government would have let us know or banned it. You’re hopefully about to join in a discussion with David, so before that happens, here’s a taste of what you’ll get if you read the book.

  • Science for Hire: Fighting regulation of harmful substances is not just confined to the companies that produce the materials, or even their industry associations. So-called "product defense firms" like "ChemRisk" and "Exponent" have sprung up to defend corporate poisons.

The work has one overriding motivation: advocacy for the sponsor’s position in civil court, the court of public opinion, and the regulatory arena.

They take the data from good studies showing that a chemical does harm, and reanalyze the data showing the exact opposite results. Then publish the new "study" — unless no reputable journal will publish it — in which case they just start up their own "scientific"journal. Michaels describes how these firms have reanalyzed data to show that — despite good evidence from studies, and sick or dead workers and consumers — roller coasters really don’t cause brains damage, soft drinks don’t cause obesity, perchlorate (a rocket fuel component ) doesn’t really cause thyroid disease, the pesticide atrazine doesn’t really cause cancer. "This is science for hire, period, and it is extremely lucrative," making the firms millions of dollars defending against disease claims and regulation.

  • The "tricks of the trade" that scientists use to mislead the public: The most devious is selling the belief that "absolute proof is required before we act," when actually, the Occupational Safety and Health Act only requires that regulation be based on the "best available evidence." So what do scientists do to prove a chemical is dangerous or safe? We obviously can’t intentionally expose a group of workers to a chemical, and then wait 20 or 30 years to see who has cancer.

    The alternatives are epidemiology and animal studies. But epidemiology — the study of disease in populations — "is a sitting duck for uncertainty campaigns." The problem with studying the effect of a chemical in a population of workers include the fact that you may not know — thirty years ago– how much they were exposed to, or what other chemicals they were exposed to, or a number of other variables for which assumptions must be made. And most chemically induced cancers mimic other common cancers and may not appear for thirty years after exposure. So it’s relatively simple to reanalyze the data, change some of the assumptions, and voila! serious doubts are raised.

    The alternative to epidemiology, however, is animal studies — exposing animals to toxic products to predict what will happen with humans. The "we are men, not mice" crowd has been successful in casting doubt on these as well.

    The problem then becomes a convenient Catch 22:

    Animal studies are important, but manufacturers often hold out for epidemiological evidence with humans before accepting any label that a substance is a carcinogen. Alternatively, they will hold out for animal studies if the only existing evidence comes from epidemiologic studies.

  • Covering up the science: The Bush administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has done virtually nothing about regulating the thousands of uncontrolled chemical that workers are exposed to. We have seen action in only two areas: hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing component in paints for which OSHA issued a standard under court order, and diacetyl, an artificial butter flavoring that causes "popcorn lung," which destroys workers’ lungs. Despite several deaths, hundreds of serious illnesses, and union petitions, OSHA spent seven years ignoring this problem (without even a fact sheet!) before finally launching the regulatory process — only after Congressional hearings and a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would have forced OSHA to issue an emergency standard.

Both of these chemicals have something in common. The industry’s that produced them had done studies that confirmed their health effects at low levels, but that evidence was hidden from regulators — and from exposed workers. In fact, Michaels was instrumental in discovering the the incriminating information on hexavalent chromium in some old file cabinets holding materials from a court case.

  • Beware the Courts: The book also discusses the Supreme Court’s 1993 Daubert decision, aka "the most influential Supreme Court ruling you’ve never heard of." The Daubert decision gives trial judges the authority to rule in — or rule out — science and scientific experts and studies before the jury even gets to hear a case. The problem here, of course, is that with the bankruptcy of our regulatory system, the courts are often the only place that the victims of corporate poisoning can go. Where "product defense" experts can cast "doubt" on the few experts that aren’t bought and paid for by corporate America, victims will be left with nothing.
  • Beware the Government: As a result of court decision and Presidential directives, the regulatory process is already bogged down almost to the point of what observers call "paralysis by analysis." OSHA, for example, regulates only about 500 chemicals out of the thousands out there that are used in high amounts and may be harmful, and most are based on science from the 1950’s and 1960’s, before we had any sophisticated understanding of cancer causation. Yet the agency has managed only to update a small handful of chemical regulations, and those often take years for each one. Not good enough, says the Bush Administration. In fact, our regulatory system has become, in the words of science author Chris Mooney (in a review of this book),"the bureaucratic equivalent of clotted arteries."

    But it threatens to get worse. Much worse. Through a number laws passed by the Republican Congress, and interpretations of those laws by Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, good-government sounding programs like the "The Data Access Act," "Data Quality Act" and "Peer Review" — which have little to do with actual quality of the data, or review by honest scientific peers — threaten to gum up the works even more (if that were possible.)

So what are the answers? What is to be done? Michaels has a number of solutions that involve transparency, full disclosure and a "Sarbanes-Oxley" type of responsibility for producers of potentially toxic substances. But my time (and space) are up. Ask him yourself.

And by the way, if anyone still thinks that all of this is just an academic exercise, when you’re done with this tonight, check in with the Charlotte Observer to check out the effect of the "junk science" movement and repeal of the ergonomics standard on real people who are preparing your dinner as we speak.

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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab