Michaels: Doubt is their Product (2)

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David Michaels, Doubt is Their Product : How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008. xii + 372 pages; with references and index.

“The jury is still out on...”, “There is still controversy about...”, “Science still is not absolutely certain...”, and similar statements are all familiar complaints made today by big, industries trying to fight off government regulation and litigation and avoid taking any responsibility for the toxic, even fatal, effects of their products. The technique is to manufacture doubt about scientific knowledge.

It was a public-relations concept that originated with the tobacco industries, but it has expanded with uncomfortable success into matters concerned with chemical manufacture, drug manufacture, food additives—it’s an approach that seems especially popular with climate-change deniers. In the trade it’s known by the innocuous sounding “product defense”.

One of the workers [at a Calco Chemicals plant in Bound Brook, New Jersey] gave us a copy of the DuPont letter [dated 1947], which contains information that, to my knowledge, had never been made public. The second paragraph begins this way: "The question of health control of employees in the manufacture of Beta Naphthylamine is indeed a grave one. As you know, we have manufactured Beta Naphthylamine for many years. Of the original group, who began the production of this product, approximately 100% have developed tumors of the bladder."

Now that is a smoking gun. Reading the letter for the first time, I stared in disbelief. I knew that the link between the aromatic amines and bladder cancer was well established, but I had never beard of any chemical that caused cancer in every one of a group of exposed workers. Could "100%" have been a typo? Should the number have been 10 percent, bad enough in itself? Either way, the admission by a medical director at DuPont demanded an investigation, and the more I learned, the more appalled I became. The number was not a mistake. The aromatic amines are killers, and the manufacturers knew this and did little until it was too late. In the annals of callous indifference to the health of industrial workers, this story is just as unseemly as the asbestos story, if less well known and affecting fewer people. [pp. 19—20]

Manipulating public perceptions and the regulatory process is now a major industry, and manufacturing “doubt” is big business for those who specialize in it. Reports and studies that support a particular outcome can easily be manufactures to suit, “scientific papers” are written to order by industry representatives, “scientific journals” can be created to order as deemed necessary.

In regulated industries, largely those regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the goal of the “product defense” operation is to delay regulation as long as possible so that profits can pile up a little longer, generally at the cost of workers’ health, sometimes even at the cost of workers’ lives.

It seems to me that the companies knew almost everything all along. The German dye industry discovered that aromatic amines caused human bladder cancer in 1895. With the publication and dissemination of the 1921 report by the International Labour Organization, the uncontrolled exposure of dye workers to these carcinogens should have been eliminated. Eliminated. Instead, the corporations' modus operandi was the same as it always is. Attack the science. Ignore the science. Demand of the science something neither it nor any institution possesses: absolute certainty. Erring on the side of protecting people's health when the potential harm is great (death from cancer would seem to quality) is a fundamental public health principle. It should not be too much to ask of our great industrial corporations, but apparently they disagree.

In defending their right to expose workers to any and all of these carcinogenic aromatic amines, manufacturers argued that the scientific evidence used by public health authorities like OSHA was wrong or irrelevant. They asserted the nonexistence of adequate proof that these chemicals would cause cancer at the current levels. In each case subsequent research proved them wrong. While the body count continued to mount, the dissemination of scientific information about bladder cancer outbreaks to chemical manufacturers had little impact on the decision-making process of corporate managers. Instead, each manufacturer went through its own discovery process, ignored well-publicized warnings, and allowed uncontrolled exposure to occur until the human cost became so obvious that it was no longer acceptable, at least in terms of public relations. [pp. 95—96]

I am not over fond of exposés but Michaels’ writing engaged my attention and kept it through the dismaying cases it documented with solid facts, careful analysis, and thoughtful policy assessments. It’s a paradigm-setting example of how regulatory policy and science should work together. I’m certain there are some who will dismiss this book as partisan hack writing with a liberal agenda, but I find verifiable facts and unbiased scientific research resolutely non-partisan.

This book is filled with verifiable facts and unbiased scientific research findings presented with vigor and undeniable passion that are quite appropriate to the urgency of the current situation, given the extent to which manufactured "controversy" and the campaign of doubt has succeeded in muddying the waters of rational discourse and muddled the minds of well-meaning citizens.

-- Notes by JNS

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