My book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (Oxford University Press, 2008 ) will be officially released May 1st (though it’s available now through Amazon and Powell’s), and I’ll be writing and speaking more about it over the next several weeks. The book reports on the way scientists working for “product defense” consulting firms manufacture uncertainty in order to help polluters and producers of dangerous products avoid or delay public health and environmental regulation.
I’m fortunate that Doubt is Their Product has already been reviewed by two journalists who do an excellent job describing the problems that decades of manufactured uncertainty have created for today’s health and environmental advocates. The reviews by Chris Mooney at The American Prospect and Arthur Allen at The Washington Independent are both worth reading, whether or not you’re seeking book-purchasing guidance.
In Doubt, I recount how the strategy of manufacturing uncertainty was pioneered by the tobacco industry. Clearly successful, it has been adopted by the asbestos, beryllium, chromium, and pesticide industries, among others, and it is the strategy used by global warming deniers. There are few industries that haven’t tried it – Andrew Dressler at Grist has a new piece on how the Indoor Tanning Association is trying to convince the public that “there is actually no evidence linking sun exposure with cancer.” (I talk about that in my book, too.)
Challenging the science behind any proposed environmental regulations has become standard operating procedure. Doubt is Their Product describes how polluters have not only delayed action on specific hazards, but, with the help of the Bush Administration, they have constructed barriers to make it harder for lawmakers, government agencies, and courts to respond to future threats.
In his review, Chris Mooney explains how product defense firms’ exploitation of science leads to larger problems:
All of science is subject to such exploitation because all of science is fundamentally characterized by uncertainty. No study is perfect; each one is subject to criticism both illegitimate and legitimate — and so if you wish, you can make any scientific stance, even the most strongly established, appear weak and dubious. All you have to do is selectively highlight uncertainty, selectively attack the existing studies one by one, and ignore the weight of the evidence. Although Michaels focuses largely on the attempts to whitewash the risks that various chemicals pose to the workplace and public health, the same methods are also used to attack the scientific understanding of evolution and global warming.
And it happens virtually every time the government even dreams of regulating a substance. People know what’s going on, but they respond as if they’re simply shocked, shocked, to find science being tortured. And so the outgunned federal agencies that must consult science to take action — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration, among others — repeatedly capitulate to corporations that effectively purchase science on demand.
We used to have a regulatory system — that was the dream, anyway, of the 1960s and 1970s. But in significant part due to the manufacturing-uncertainty strategy, we now have the bureaucratic equivalent of clotted arteries. And mercenary science hasn’t just blinded federal agencies. It has also blinded the courts, where the same tactics apply. Indeed, recent changes to the role of science in the federal regulatory system and the courts have worsened the situation by making corporate sabotage of scientific research easier than ever.
The 1998 Data Access Act (or “Shelby Amendment”) and the 2001 Data Quality Act, both originally a glint in Big Tobacco’s eye, enable companies to get the data behind publicly funded studies and help them challenge research that might serve as the basis for regulatory action. Meanwhile, the 1993 Supreme Court decision in the little-known Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals case further facilitates the strategy, unwisely empowering trial court judges to determine what is and what isn’t good science in civil cases. Under Daubert, judges have repeatedly spiked legitimate expert witnesses who were otherwise set to testify about the dangers demonstrated by epidemiological research. Often juries don’t even hear the science any more because the defense can get it thrown out pre-trial.
Arthur Allen, meanwhile, focuses on beryllium, a lightweight metal used in manufacturing nuclear weapons and other products. The Atomic Energy Commission started limiting workers’ beryllium exposure in 1949, after many had already developed crippling lung disease; when it turned out that limit wasn’t protective enough, both OSHA and the Department of Energy began the process of lowering the beryllium exposure limit. Brush Wellman, the largest U.S. manufacturer of beryllium, responded by hiring scientists to critique government studies and raising doubts about proposed new limits – and so far, OSHA still hasn’t updated its inadequate beryllium exposure limit. Allen emphasizes the human toll that beryllium exposure can take:
From 1958 to 1993, Gary Renwand Sr. worked as a machinist at the Brush Wellman plant southeast of Toledo, Ohio, shaping parts for space capsule reentry shields, electrical switches and brake pads. “There was a lot of powder in the air,” he told me. “We were never even told to wear masks until the last few years.”
Toward the end of his work years, Renwand’s mornings began with a coughing fit. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease. He now heads a support group in Ohio for 200 other sick beryllium workers. Fifteen have died in the last few years.
In beryllium disease, which strikes as many as 15 percent of people exposed to the metal, the immune system goes into overdrive to try to rid the lungs of the invader. Renwand has been on a daily regimen of steroids for 15 years to counter his immune response. The steroids cause him to put on weight, and he now suffers from diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis, in addition to breathing difficulties.
Renwand’s oldest son, 51-year-old Gary Jr., has beryllium disease, too. And the elder Renwand worries about his youngest son, who is still working in the plant. “If I had known what I know now, I never would have let them go to work there. But there aren’t a lot of decent-paying jobs around here.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways to address these problems within our regulatory system and the court. I’ll be writing more about them in the weeks to come — and, of course, you can always learn about them from Doubt is Their Product itself.