Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

In fall 2001, the US Public Health Service announced its conclusion that a graduate student in John McLachlan's laboratory at Tulane University, Steven Arnold, had committed scientific fraud. The same announcement cleared McLachlan himself of any wrongdoing.

The fraud involved Arnold's fabrication of data that were used in a now-withdrawn paper in published in Science (272:1489-1492) on extremely powerful synergy among estrogenic compounds.

Two right-wing chemical industry supporters--Dennis Avery and Steven Milloy--have used the Public Health Service's announcement to claim that this invalidates all research on endocrine disruption. As ludicrous as that assertion is scientifically, their claims are a potential source of confusion for people who do not follow this issue closely. I have therefore posted below a detailed analysis of what they are claiming.

Dennis Avery's commentary (see below) is a classic example of PR spinning that seizes upon an element of truth and then distorts it in ways to serve a larger purpose, in this case arguing to weaken standards that protect public health from pesticide exposures. Milloy is a fellow-traveler who has written similarly false assertions. The comments below focus on Avery's commentary but apply equally to Milloy's

As background, note that Avery has been a relentless, indeed rabid advocate for the pesticide industry. A good example of Avery's work was described in the New York Times on 17 February 1999 in an article by Marian Burros titled: "Eating Well. Anti-organic and flawed." (available on the web at: www.purefood.org/Organic/denavery.cfm and several other organic food sites). In essence, Avery fabricated a quote designed to make organic food appear more dangerous than conventional food and attributed the quote to an expert from the US Centers for Disease Control. Despite repeated denials by the CDC, Avery persisted (and still persists) in using this as evidence for his arguments. (also see www.winrock.org/wallacecenter/press001a.htm for a related request by the Wallace Institute that Avery withdraw demonstrably false claims; and www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1999Q4/avery.html for an analysis of Avery's tactics by PR Watch.

As is often the case, the half-truths told by people like Avery can be reduced to simple sound-bites, while the truth is much more complicated. With respect to his claims in the commentary distributed on CEHN list, Avery got the first fact correct but then built upon it a completely distorted view of science and history.

Here is a brief chronology of some relevent events to provide a context. I've compiled this from Sheldon Krimsky's history of endocrine disruption as a public issue ("Hormonal Chaos, published in 2000) and through consulting some of the people who were in government at the time, including Dr. Lynn Goldman, then Assistant Administrator at EPA on pesticide issues, as well as via review of relevant documents. My comments after the chronology refers back to some of the people and events in the chronology.

  • 1990: Breast cancer activists on Long Island begin to engage Senator A D'Amato (R, NY) in research on causes of breast cancer
  • July 1991: Wingspread conference on endocrine disruption
  • June 1993: National Academy of Sciences issues a report on kids and pesticides which establishes that current regulations were inadequate.
  • September 1993: Senator D'Amato testifies before a joint hearing of the Senate and House and raises possible role of endocrine disruption in causing breast cancer.
  • April 1995: EPA endocrine disruptor workshop
  • June 1995: EPA/Industry endocrine disruptor ecological effects workshop
  • November 1995 More D'Amato testimony
  • March 1996: Our Stolen Future published
  • June 1996: Synergy article by Arnold et al. appears in Science
  • July 1996: Food Quality Protection Act passed
  • July 1997: McLachlan publishes letter in Science withdrawing the Arnold results.
  • July 1998: A Tulane University investigation of the incident exonerates McLachlan but finds that Arnold possessed insufficient data to support the paper's conclusions.
  • October 2001: US Public Health Service reports finding that Arnold submitted fraudulent results,

As Avery describes, Steven Arnold, a post-doc at Tulane University working on synergistic interactions among chemicals did commit scientific fraud. There were challenges raised about the results right from the outset, enough so that in the second edition of "Our Stolen Future" (the epilogue to the second edition was written a few months after the Arnold paper was published) we wrote: "If further experiments confirm these findings, this study will undoubtedly have profound implications for the regulation of chemicals, which are now reviewed individually." (p258, paperback edition). Because they had important implications, many labs attempted to replicate them, including the lab in which Arnold worked, run by John McLachlan at Tulane University. When McLachlan himself could not replicate them, he withdrew the results with a letter to Science (where it had been published originally). A subsequent investigation by Tulane found McLachlan without blame in the incident. Arnold finally confessed to having faked the results.

There is a detailed description of this episode in Sheldon Krimsky's book about the history of endocrine disruption, Hormonal Chaos (pages 169-163). And in an editorial about the whole episode, the editors of Environmental Health Perspectives (published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciencess) praise McLachlan for the integrity with which he handled the whole process (EHP August 1997).

But Avery uses Arnold's fraud to argue to a wildly wrong conclusion. He misrepresents both the science and the politics.

From a scientific perspective, while Arnold's data suggested extraordinarily high synergistic interactions among chemicals, synergy itself was nothing new. Other studies had revealed synergistic interactions before Arnold's data were published, and studies have been published since. In fact this is a very active area of research. There was already more than adequate justification to require examining the effects of combinations of pesticides. Research since then has reinforced this very strongly. Arnold's data suggested the problem was even worse, but it was bad enough already.

Avery has the substance and the politics of the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 completely wrong. The FQPA does not incorporate concerns for synergistic interactions. It does incorporate concerns for additive interactions, but only under very stringent circumstances. It does include provisions for testing substances for endocrine effects, but no regulatory provisions.

The Arnold study was of virtually no importance in the either the language of the act or the political pressure to pass it--it arrived way too late to have any impact. This is where Avery is distorting, indeed creating facts to support his purpose most conspicuously and taking quotes out of context. Krimsky's book Hormonal Chaos has a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the Act (pages 69-74). Four factors were most important:

First, in 1993 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that recommended a complete overhaul of the Food Quality Protection Act based on its assessment that the current version was inadequate, especially with respect to risks for children. This report is the core of the science behind the FQPA, not an isolated research report on synergism.

Second, a Republican Senator, Al D'Amato (NY), was under pressure from the breast cancer lobby because of elevated breast cancer rates on Long Island in his home state. As early as 1993 he began talking about the possibility of estrogenic chemicals having a role in breast cancer and raised very large sums of money for research in this area. He then strongly supported the development of endocrine specific issues in the FQPA, years before the Arnold study came out.

Third, the Republican Congress in the summer of 1996 was desperate to pass legislation that it could point to as being supportive of environmental protection. Recall the era-the Republican take-over of the House had led to a series of extreme attempts to turn back environmental protection, and by summer of 1996 with elections looming the backlash was upon them.

Finally, again before Arnold's study came out, industry began supporting the bill because it involved removing a specific clause from pesticide regulations, the "Delany Clause" which required zero tolerance for food additives that had been shown to be human or animal carcinogens at any dose. It was replaced with a "reasonable certainty of no harm" standard.

The bill was ultimately supported by a wide range of representatives of the agricultural industry, food processors and distributors, as well as environmental groups. The law was passed unanimously on a roll call vote in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate.

I have imbedded additional comments in blue within Avery's text, which follows. Avery's text is in black:

A Bioterrorist Caught-But Not Punished. Dennis T. Avery

A bioterrorist has been caught. An American scientist who terrified the U.S. public, hoodwinked the scientific press, and panicked the congress has been found out. The Federal Office of Research Integrity just ruled that Steven R.Arnold, a former researcher at the Tulane University Center for Bioenvironmental Research, "committed scientific misconduct by intentionally falsifying the research results published in the journal Science and by providing falsified and fabricated materials to investigating officials." Arnold claimed that the U.S. food supply was dangerously contaminated,

JPM: the Science article makes no such claim. This is typical Avery, manufacturing claims when he needs them.

and sent federal authorities off on a costly wild goose chase that continues to this day.

JPM: Scientific justification for research into these issues came long before Arnold and it has continued to grow ever since. It is anything but a wild goose chase. This statement by Avery reveals the depth of his biases (or of his ignorance).

He used high-level political allies

JPM: a post-doc with high-level political allies?

to publicize a scientific fraud that imposed untold amounts of anxiety on the public. He cost the United States economy billions of dollars, with the toll still mounting. His punishment? He will not be allowed to receive any federal scientific grants for five years.

JPM: Avery's rhetoric about cost to the economy has no basis in fact. Arnold's data had no such impact. As noted above, they played virtually no role in FQPA. And they were withdrawn too quickly to have any lasting impact on scientific research (as noted in the EHP editorial)

It is one of the most dramatic scientific frauds of modern times.
JPM: "Most dramatic scientific frauds..."?? What about decades of scientific fraud by tobacco companies and by lead companies? What about cold fusion? What about efforts to cover up the health consequences of DES? Or TRW's fraudulent representations of the effectiveness of national missile defense, shown by MIT scientist Theodore Postol to be practically and theoretically incapable of defending the US against missile attack. Avery's rhetoric here reaches beyond the realm of credibility. Arnold committed a fraud, but it was revealed and dealt with before real harm could be caused.

A major scientific laboratory published remarkable new information in the world's top science journal, confirming one of the public's worst fears. The Tulane Center said it found that various pesticides, safe when tested individually, were 1,000 times more dangerous when tested together. It raised the specter of modern agriculture's chemicals undermining the health of the human population and the natural ecology through a blind spot in our regulatory testing.


JPM: It remains a blind spot in regulatory testing. Chemicals are still testing one by one even though many studies have shown unambigously that there are interactions among chemicals in their effects.

The environmental movement claimed for decades that this danger existed, but never produced any evidence. A book was published in early 1996, with a remarkable title - Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival? - A Scientific Detective Story. The book speculated that man-made chemicals were causing ailments ranging from cancer to attention deficit disorder by disrupting our endocrine systems. The book'sforward was by then-Vice President Al Gore, who called it a legitimate sequel to Rachel Carson's famed Silent Spring.

Our Stolen Future was widely noted in the media-and just as widely criticized by respected scientists.

JPM: the most vocal critics of Our Stolen Future were participants in an effort called The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). Research just published in the American Journal of Public Health reveals (by analysis of Philip Morris documents) that TASSC was founded to undermine tobacco laws. Philip Morris then brought the chemical industry in to make it look like a broader coalition. Links to this study are available via:
www.ourstolenfuture.org/Industry/2001-11ongandglantz.htm


Even the book's author, Theo Colbert, admitted she had only suspicions linking anecdotes.

JPM: Avery's lack of accuracy shines here. There were three coauthors of the book (including me) and he misspells Colborn's name. He has taken Colborn's comment completely out of context. And in the ensuing years, the scientific case for endocrine disruption as a serious issue has strengthened even more.

But then, in June 1996, came the Tulane study, claiming that combinations of pesticides were radically more dangerous endocrine disrupters than we had known. Carol Browner, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said, "The new study is the strongest evidence to date that combinations of estrogenic chemicals may be potent enough to significantly increase the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, birth defects and other major health concerns." The EPA's pesticide chief, Lynn Goldman, noted, "I just can't remember a time where I've seen data so persuasive . . . the results are very clean looking."

JPM: Avery takes Goldman out of context here. According to Goldman "I went on to say that IF REPLICATED the results WOULD have serious implications for testing. I never concluded, privately or publically, on the basis of a single laboratory experiment, that the entire testing program of the agency should be turned upside down. Moreover, industry knows this very well since we had many discussions over the issue at the time and again and again I emphasized the need for replication, not only of the original experiment but also of other experiments in other systems in order to understand the finding..

The U.S. Congress was just then writing rewriting pesticide law, and the Tulane study stampeded near-unanimous approval in July 1996, for a statute that established an expensive new set of tests for pesticide endocrine disruption. The EPA was also given dramatically increased authority to tighten residue limits for any pesticide which the agency though might endanger the health of children.

JPM: As noted above, Avery gets his history wrong here. The Tulane study had no such effect on the bill's passage. It was nearly unanimous because industry liked the disappearance of the Delaney clause, and because of the support of a powerful Republican Senator. The scientific rationale for FQPA came from the National Academy's study, based on hundreds (if not thousands) of studies.

The EPA is currently using that authority to drive off the market safety-proven pesticides that for decades have protected our fruits and vegetables from bugs and bacteria, and our homes from termites. The resulting increases in termite damage alone are probably costing billions of dollars per year. Because of the EPA's new FQPA authority, we're currently in danger of losing a host of effective minor-crop chemicals that help protect cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables from voracious pests.

JPM: Not, however, because of their endocrine effects. The health endpoints used to remove the chemicals to which Avery is referring are based on old and very conservative regulatory standards.

By scientific standards, the Tulane fraud began to unravel quickly. Within six months, other scientists were reporting that they couldn't reproduce the Tulane results. The Tulane lab director was forced to sign a Science retraction in August 1997, admitting that Tulane couldn't reproduce its own results.

JPM: "Forced to sign" completely misrepresents McLachlan's role in this. See my comments above.

But Arnold still did not admit his fraud. He merely said, "I can't really explain the original findings." In August 1999, an expert committee of the National Research Council-a panel that included representatives of the activist community as well as mainstream scientists-reported there was no evidence that chemicals in the environment were disrupting hormonal process in humans or wildlife.

JPM: This is a fraudulant misrepresentation of the NRC's results. Briefly, the NRC found:


 

There is strong evidence from studies of wildlife and laboratory animals that chemicals can interfere with the body's natural hormone system and disrupt the biological process of development in the womb.


There is some evidence from people, particularly for high exposures and even for moderate exposures of one class of chemicals -- PCBs -- that a hormone disrupter can affect human development.
The report demonstrated there is ample evidence that humans are experiencing an increase in the same kind of health problems that hormone-disrupting chemicals cause in animals.


The academy confirmed that human exposure to these contaminants is widespread and that animal studies are a vital guide to identifying health risks for people.


The panel members also concurred that hormonally active chemicals can affect humans and wildlife at high doses, but they could not reach agreement about whether these compounds are in fact causing harm at the levels encountered in the environment. As the report stated, "whether environmental exposures....are responsible for a variety of widespread adverse effects on the health of humans and wildlife remains a topic of debate."


With regard to the most debated health effects, such as testicular cancer, breast cancer, and sperm count declines, the report concluded that the crucial studies that might help settle the question have simply not been done.


Moreover, that panel had strong industry representation that worked to undermine the review process. It also stopped reviewing evidence published after 1997 even though many new studies were flooding the scientific journals during that period, and have continued to build since.

 

For summaries see www.ourstolenfuture.org/NewScience/newscience.htm


You can find a link to the NRC report at: www.ourstolenfuture.org/Consensus/nrc.htm

The Royal Society of London (Britain's counterpart to the NRC) also published an assessment at about the same time. It is even more at odds with Avery's conclusion. The Royal Society found the evidence strong enough to justify new protections, observing that "regulations cannot be put on hold until all the evidence has been collected."

A link to this report is at: www.ourstolenfuture.org/Consensus/royalsociety.htm

Arnold not only committed scientific fraud, he lied about it afterward. To this day, activists still loudly warn that pesticides have been "linked" to endocrine disruption; and American consumers needlessly worry about the healthiness of their food.

JPM: They unquestionably have been linked. Many pesticides in modern use are endocrine disruptors. Avery is ignoring a huge body of scientific literature when he writes this.

The flawed Food Quality Protection Act remains on the books. And, farmers are losing still more of the tools that have allowed them to feed more people on less land. Is this really a victimless white-collar crime, calling for nothing more than a federal tap on the wrist?

Is bioterrorism a harmless prank when committed by a "scientist"? If the answer is "yes, " it's a dangerous precedent.

JPM: And what about an industry schill telling half-truths to protect an industry whose products are causing disease and illness?

John Peterson Myers, Ph.D.
www.OurStolenFuture.org


 
     
     

 

 

 

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