“The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception,” by David Michaels, Oxford University Press, NY, 2020. In this 330-page hard back, an epidemiologist with government experience tells how corporations distort scientific findings to defend their business. They hire experts to review the data and dispute the findings. They also publish papers in peer reviewed journals that support their position. Rarely do they collect additional experimental data, but extensive reviews of published literature are common. They then testify for the company as experts.
“The studies done have little or nothing to do with advancing science. . . . Call it “litigation science: deceptive studies (or re-analyses of other real studies) to create the appearance of reasonable doubt.”
This method has been used for tobacco, lead, asbestos, benzene, silica and many more.
Raw data review is used to claim the risk reported by original authors is exaggerated. Some authors have refused to release their raw data, but studies funded by government grants now require it.
The techniques described were pioneered by the tobacco industry to defend smoking. For a while companies advertised that their brands were preferred by doctors or that their brand was safer than other brands.
Chapters give examples. The first is PFAs, a group of perfluorinated materials made by Dupont and 3M. They are used in Teflon, on non-stick surfaces like cookware, in firefighting foams, and in antistain treatments. These “forever chemicals” contaminate drinking water and now are found in food and human bodies. Studies found no safe level of PFAs. The industry responded with a study finding “insufficient evidence to establish connection with any immune condition in humans.”
CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is the brain injury suffered by football players due to repeated concussions. The NFL created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries Committee to look into the matter. After eight years studies denied any long term effects. Autopsies have disputed those findings. Studies continue.
Alcohol consumption was investigated by The Foundation for Alcohol Research. A J-shaped curve shows increased rates of death for those with the most drinks per day. Cirrhosis of the liver is a known risk, but less well known is that alcohol increases the risk of cancer–especially colo-rectal cancer and female breast cancer. WHO found alcohol is responsible for 4.2% of cancer deaths world wide. The Distilled Spirits Council hired an expert who concluded there were too many confounders to reach sound conclusions.
Diesel engine exhaust gets a chapter. In the 1980s data showed that exposure to diesel soot increased cancer risk. A variety of agencies, NIOSH, OSHA, and finally Mine Safety and Health Administration asked for studies. To avoid complications from other exposures the tests were run in non-coal, non-metal mining operations, ie limestone, salt, potash, and trona mines. The Mining Awareness Research Group Diesel Coalition vigorously opposed the study in court and in Congress. They delayed it for almost 20 years. In 2012, IARC classified diesel exhaust as a human carcinogen. First regulations began to appear in 2001. They too were challenged in court. Meanwhile engine manufacturers achieved significant reductions in particulates and nitrogen oxides. MARG argued the tests were run with old technology engines. The battle continues.
In the 1990s, OxyContin from Purdue Pharma became a major source of opioid addiction and death. Purdue argued that pain was under treated, addiction to pain meds was rare, and supported the claims with heavy advertising. Front groups supported by the industry such as the American Pain Foundation helped tell the industry’s story. Coal miners and construction workers take pain pills when injured to get back to work. They tend to get addicted. Prescription controls were tightened with some effect, but patients moved to illegal drugs like heroin or fentanyl. Lawsuits against the drug companies are in process.
Silica dust is common from working with sand, rock mining or stone products like granite countertops. Inhaled dust reduces life expectancy by 11 years. OSHA has permissible exposure limits for only 500 chemicals of the thousands in commerce. And has updated standards for only 27. As OSHA considered updating the silica exposure standard, a group of companies and trade associations formed the Silica Coalition to oppose that effort. In 1996, IARC concluded inhaled silica dust is carcinogenic to humans. A proposed standard was issued in 2011. The standard was challenged in court, but survived. It became effective in 2017. The new standard resulted in vacuum devices or wetting devices on tools to control dust.
Talc is a common ingredient in many products including baby powder. In 1987, IARC classified talc with asbestiform fibers as carcinogenic in humans. By 2000, studies found the use of talc on sanitary napkins or diaphragms increased risk of ovarian cancer. The author argues many cases of ovarian cancer could have been avoided if baby powder makers had changed to a less toxic material. Lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson are pending.
A section describes Monsanto’s efforts to defend Roundup. In 2015, Monsanto anticipated that IARC might classify glyphosate as a probably human carcinogen. It undertook defunding the agency, ghostwriting scientific papers and articles, hiring journalists to discredit the agency, using front groups to appear independent, and attempting to silence scientists in the IARC process. Lawsuits are pending.
A chapter describes dieselgate, the Volkswagen project to program their diesels to detect emissions testing and modify run parameters to pass the test. Their engines continued to pollute while escaping detection. Nitrogen oxides in the exhaust are irritating when inhaled. In 2008, Volkwagen’s new diesel had trouble meeting US nitrogen oxide limits. Exhaust scrubbers with urea could be used to trap the Nox, but they were expensive and required maintenance. Management opted for the software solution. Portable test devices detected the scam in 2014. VW’s environmental manager in the US was convicted in 2017 and sentenced to seven years in prison. Fiat Chrysler (Jeep), Renault, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz were similarly accused. Audi paid $930MM in civil penalties and prosecution of its CEO is pending.
Climate Change Denial gets a chapter. Michaels attributes the effort to the Koch Brothers who own the largest privately held oil company. They copied the techniques of the tobacco industry. The goal was lower corporate taxes and to block regulation of greenhouse gases. They used a network of funders who created academic centers and think tanks with innocent names like Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity, International Climate Science Coalition, Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide, etc. A chart shows the network of PR firms and organizations used by the tobacco industry to create the Tea Party. The Tea Party did not spring up in 2009 to oppose the Affordable Care Act. Phillip Morris began the concept in 1989. Citizens for a Sound Economy formed the US Tea Party in 2002.
The sugar industry sought to counter charges that refined sugar causes diabetes, tooth decay, polio, and obesity. They formed the Sugar Research Foundation in the ‘50s. It played a role in findings that heart disease is caused by fat in the diet (diverting attention from sugar). Coca-Cola funded a non-profit that promoted exercise as the best way to address diet related health problems. General Mills markets high sugar cereals emphasizing “made with whole grains.” A soda tax on sugar sweetened beverages is under discussion but vigorously opposed by the industry. Consumption was reduced after enactment in Berkeley and Philadelphia. USDA represents both the industry and the consumer. A separate agency was suggested to sharpen focus on healthy eating.
Michaels bemoans the ability of large corporations to defend their products by funding research. Replacement of a problem agent with something similar that is untested is a concern. He describes the case of diacetyl, used for buttery flavor in microwave popcorn. It causes bronchitis in workers. The industry switched to 2,3-pentanedione, a similar material without known toxic effects. He calls for stronger regulations.
This book is an eye-opener on techniques used by industry to defend businesses from government action. Index. References.