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Corporate campaigns manufacture scientific doubt by David Michaels

From the September 27, 2008 issue of Science News

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In Doubt Is Their Product, published in April, epidemiologist David Michaels describes the growing corporate practice of “manufacturing” scientific uncertainty to thwart regulation of products that appear to pose risks. Michaels encountered the practice firsthand with beryllium, a metal used at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities, while he was the Energy Department’s Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health. Now head of GeorgeWashingtonUniversity’s Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, or SKAPP, Michaels spoke with senior editor Janet Raloff about this doubt-generation movement.

Where did you get your book’s title?

It comes from a 1969 memo by a Brown & Williamson tobacco executive. He said: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’” linking smoking with lung cancer. That tobacco campaign continues to this day, now focused on the issue of secondhand smoke. Before the 1980s, industry could always say that even if smoking does cause cancer, individuals choose to smoke. But as studies emerged showing that nonsmoking spouses also face an increased risk of lung cancer, the stakes changed. Recognizing this potential new liability, the industry hired more and better scientists and strategized how to disparage the cancer studies in order to avoid regulation.


You can document all this?

Absolutely. In great detail. And not just for tobacco. Interestingly, many scientists who initially pioneered this work for the tobacco industry on secondhand smoke now defend producers of beryllium, chromium, pesticides and a whole range of other chemicals by manufacturing doubt about their risks. I even have internal minutes of meetings with trade associations where scientists describe the strategies and studies they need to do for a suspect product to avoid regulation. My research shows that a campaign to generate scientific uncertainty has grown into a very lucrative product-defense industry.I know I’m making very strong statements, but I support every one of my assertions with powerfull documents. We’ve placed all of my book’s 1,100 references at www.defendingscience.org, the SKAPP website.

How widespread is this doubt generation?

A number of corporate scientists, even in the chemical industry, are good researchers with great integrity. But when a product is found to be dangerous, companies and their lawyers increasingly have been turning to what I call mercenary scientists, researchers who will produce the studies needed to question scientific findings suggesting increased risk.I’m especially familiar with beryllium because I was in charge of protecting the health of workers in the nuclear weapons complex where beryllium is used. This metal slows down neutrons, which makes for a better nuclear blast. Studies … have shown it also causes lung disease at very low exposure levels.The National Toxicology Program has classified beryllium as a carcinogen, as has the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A National Academy of Sciences panel also came out saying beryllium’s a carcinogen. It’s clear the current exposure standard is inadequate. I question whether it’s even possible to use beryllium safely. The beryllium industry has spent many millions of dollars over the past 30 years attacking studies on beryllium’s toxicity in order to delay—successfully—revisions to the current Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace standard. (It was set in 1948 in the back of a taxi by two scientists on their way to a meeting. It’s often referred to as “the taxicab standard.”) The chromium industry also employed product-defense scientists to question the science OSHA eventually used to issue a more protective standard.

How visible are these doubt campaigns?

The science community is for the most part unaware of what’s going on because industry publishes much of this work in “vanity” journals where the peer review is done by scientists who work for the same industries or contract firms. These journals are not widely read. But the papers in them, which can run over 100 pages in length, are often used in regulatory proceedings and the courts. When independent researchers encounter such work, it’s important that they draw attention to it—and get critiques of it on the record. As long as there are corporations looking to limit regulation, they will be looking for scientists who will manufacture scientific doubt for them. It is a strategy that works all too well, and its success can be dangerous to the public’s health and to the environment. Pull quote: 'When a product is found to be dangerous, companies and their lawyers increasingly have been turning to …mercenary scientists."

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