- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

Science today and every day is under assault. The assailants are members of the media, trial lawyers, self-appointed consumer-activists and environmentalists. The science being mutilated pertains to a wide spectrum of health topics including "facts" on the purported health hazards around us, including acrylamide (a chemical formed in cooking high-carbohydrate foods), breast implants, PCBs, phthalates (plasticizers), aspartame (Nutrasweet), Olestra (Procter & Gamble's doomed fat substitute).
In these instances and so many more outright blatant misrepresentations of the available science are made, health hazards that do not exist are claimed and picked up by the news media, and ultimately by lawyers intoxicated with the possibility of a cash reward in court from a corporate deep pocket.
Sherlock Holmes once solved a murder mystery by asking why the watchdog did not bark. It is time to ask why, in light of this ongoing distortion of scientific reality, American scientists are not barking in protest.
Take, for example, the ongoing regulatory and legal wrangling over PCBs, synthetic chemicals used, because of their insulating, flame-retardant nature, as coolants and lubricants in transformers and other electrical equipment. (PCBs, which were disposed of legally in rivers , were banned in 1979). Any review of the scientific literature will reveal that (a) PCBs at high dose are toxic and carcinogenic in rodents and (b) no human study including workers who were very heavily exposed, and individuals, including pregnant women, who ate substantial amounts of fish with measurable levels of PCBs has ever shown any major significant long-term negative health effects.
Studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have shown that even those workers with PCB blood concentrations much higher (300 parts per billion) than the national background level (10-20 parts ppb) did not manifest any health effects PCBs at very high dose can cause a severe,temporary form of acne but that is it.
Yet the Environmental Protection Agency, prodded by environmental activists. is compelling General Electric to spend more than $500 million to remove PCBs from the Hudson River. Why? EPA tells us it wants to prevent cancer. But even the National Cancer Institute concedes it knows of no evidence that eating fish from a PCB-contaminated river contributes to the toll of cancer in the United States.
And while the EPA is busy protecting us from cancer risks that don't exist, attorney Johnnie Cochran is busy at work in Anniston, Ala., claiming "the lives of just about all the families living (in this small town) have been ripped apart" by Monsanto's release of PCBs years ago.
Mr. Cochran argues that cancer cases galore are caused by trace levels of PCBs in the environment. And, he opines, that even people who are not sick deserve compensation from Solutia (the new name for Monsanto's chemical business) because they might get sick in the future.
CBS' "60 Minutes" picked up recently on the Anniston story featuring an "expert" who argued "there is no debate whatever" in the scientific community that PCBs cause cancer. The segment left viewers with the clear impression the poor people of Anniston were dropping dead like flies and that PCBs were responsible.
Given that these claims are the mirror image of the facts about PCBs and human health, why are American scientists not outraged? Why aren't physicians and scientists picketing in front of CBS or at least writing letters in protest (My letter to "60 Minutes" was neither answered or acknowledged). Why aren't American scientists barking? Why do they remain mute?
First, most scientists feel more comfortable in labs and classrooms than on op-ed pages and TV studios and they have no real clue about how to go about challenging what they read and see. Second, in virtually 100 percent of cases where scientists have stepped forward to debunk the "carcinogen scare de jour," they have been subject to ad hominem attacks and labeled "paid liars" for industry. That threat of humiliation is enough to cause many to bite their tongues. Third, science these days has become so very specialized, that the overwhelming portion of our country's scientists have very narrow areas of expertise. Those with a Ph.D. in entomology, biology, veterinary medicine or physics might possibly be as duped as the average citizen when Mr. Cochran talks about the PCB-induced epidemic in Alabama.
These obstacles must be addressed and overcome because the consequences of the silence of the scientific community (interpreted as assent) are profound. The assault on science not only distorts health risks, but it threatens innovation, jobs and our country's enviable high standard of living. Only scientists can effectively counter scientific misinformation. May the barking begin.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.


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