Respectful Insolence

In yesterday’s post, in which I discussed the President’s Cancer Panel report on environmental toxins and cancer, I criticized one of the reactions to it, specifically that of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), even referencing a truly hilarious Daily Show clip in which Jeff Stier, Associate Director of ACSH didn’t exactly come off looking particularly good. (Let’s just leave it at that.) Apparently my criticism didn’t sit too well with Gilbert Ross, MD, the Medical/Executive Director of ACSH, because he actually showed up in the comments, apparently wounded that I would point out that ACSH appears to have a very distinct pro-industry bias. Part of what Dr. Ross wrote is, I think, worth repeating because it shows exactly what I mean:

I and my colleagues at ACSH are gratified that Orac reads our Daily Dispatch so assiduously, and we appreciate constructive criticism. Using terms such as pro-industry, however, detracts and distracts from objective fact-based discussion. We are pro-science and pro-consumer–when “industry” falls short of scientific validity, we call them on it: cigarette makers, homeopathic “healers,” and “dietary nutritional supplement” marketers have been our targets, among others.

See what I mean? I was actually simultaneously amused and annoyed because a response like that is the height of disingenuousness. It’s also strikingly similar to a response I once got from Jeff Stier in an e-mail exchange. This striking similarity in Stier’s and Ross’ responses to the charge of being “pro-industry” suggests to me that it is an agreed-upon talking point for ACSH personnel to wield like a talisman against charges of being scientific apologists for the interests of large corporations. It’s also an insult to the intelligence of the average sea slug because Dr. Ross and Mr. Stier know damned well what is meant a charge of “pro-industry” bias. Hint: It’s not favoring homeopaths, most supplement manufacturers (although admittedly supplement manufacturing is being increasingly done by big pharma), or even the tobacco industry. True, criticizing the tobacco industry is one area where ACSH actually gets it right. On the other hand, of late I do notice that ACSH seems to be less than friendly to studies documenting the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, even saying that proponents of indoor smoking bans have “gone off the deep end.” Indeed, Michael Siegel (whom I’ve blogged about before) seems to be a favorite of the ACSH.

Be that as it may, the industries I meant when I said “pro-industry” are, of course, big pharma, pesticides, agribusiness, chemical, and the processed food industries, to name a few. And, of course, it’s a good thing when ACSH criticizes smoking, unscientific alt-med quackery, and the anti-vaccine movement. Unfortunately, when it coms to virtually any other scientific issue of environmental exposures as potential causes of disease or health problems other than smoking tobacco, why is it that ACSH nearly seems to come down on the side of one of the aforementioned industries, in particular the chemical, processed food, agribusiness, and pesticide industries? Moreover, while supporting vaccines and attacking alt-med quackery (as ACSH does) are certainly correct on a scientific basis, they also just so happen to be positions that align with the aforementioned industries. Coincidence? I don’t think so, at least not anymore.

It’s not as though I haven’t wanted to give ACSH the benefit of the doubt over the years. On the surface, ACSH talks the right talk. Sometimes it even appears to walk the right walk. Indeed, I even used to cite it fairly regularly early in my blogging career. However, over the last five years, I’ve become more and more disillusioned. Consider it a maturing of my skepticism. In the beginning, I cheered ACSH because I saw it criticizing quackery and medical pseudoscience, but as I became more experienced–sophisticated, if you will–and looked into it more I noticed the distinct bias. As a counterbalance, to see if my perception of bias might be incorrect or overblown, every so often I perused the ACSH website, looking for signs of ACSH bucking the aforementioned industries. I failed every time to find any evidence that would tend to falsify my hypothesis that ACSH is hopelessly pro-big industry. In fact, because of this suspicion, I decided to issue a little challenge to Dr. Ross after his response:

Of course, I’d be more than happy to be shown to be wrong about this assessment of ACSH, but having perused the ACSH website over the last couple of years I have yet to find an example of ACSH standing up to one of those industries. Perhaps Dr. Ross could educate me and provide a few examples of ACSH standing up to big pharma, big agriculture, or the chemical industry.

Dr. Ross’ response was most instructive:

Unlike the large nonprofits such as AHA ALA ACS etc., ACSH has repeatedly pointed out how the FDA-approved NRTs for smoking cessation are by and large ineffective, and have campaigned for close to a decade for science-based approval of smokeless tobacco and (more recently) e-cigarettes as cessation aids/harm reduction products. As you know, ACSH’s credibility in the area of cigarette dangers is unquestioned. Big Pharma generously supports those groups and they–not necessarily of course having anything to do with funding–ignore and mislead about the facts on harm reduction. As you will of course agree, the problem of helping 45 million addicted adult smokers (in the USA alone) quit is a most important issue, given the one-year success rate of patches, meds., etc come in at less than 20%. Unacceptable–yet the official websites collude with Pharm to promote these drugs and state, “smokeless tobacco is not a safe substitute for cigarettes.” Of course it’s not! Tobacco abstinence is preferable–but nicotine addicts will get their drug: via lethal cigarettes, or 99% SAFER (not “safe”) snus, if given truthful information. Also, when the American Chemistry Council bought into the “let’s target chemicals” mantra from the EPA, we noted how off-base scientifically they were when they caved to the political zeitgeist, “going along to get along.”

I’m not so sure that ACSH’s credibility with regard to tobacco is still “unquestioned”–at least not anymore, given its apparently increasing hostility to the concept that secondhand smoke is an environmental health hazard, even to the point of printing editorials by pro-smoker activists Michael J. McFadden and David W. Kuneman (whom I’ve discussed more than once right here on this very blog), the former of whom is know for running a particularly idiotic website called Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains. As for e-cigarettes, the science isn’t in yet, and personally I remain agnostic about whether they are useful for smoking cessation, as the evidence thus far is profoundly inconclusive. Given how much the ACSH claims to champion science, I find it rather odd that it seems to be so high on e-cigs. In any case, as I’ve seen pointed out before, the FDA tried to regulate e-cigarettes and was slapped down. Consequently, it would appear that e-cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA, which puts them in the same category as supplements and herbal remedies, as far as I’m concerned. As for smokeless tobacco, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be regulated every bit as much as cigarettes, given that it can cause some incredibly nasty oral cancers. Yet Dr. Ross is promoting these and castigating the pharmaceutical industry for promoting pharmacotherapy. Actually, Dr. Ross’ example says a lot; he appears to prefer the unregulated or weakly regulated (smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes) over the heavilty regulated (pharmacotherapies). His “attack” on the American Chemistry Council is telling, too. The ACSH actually criticized the public relations organization for the chemical industry for siding with the EPA regarding chemical exposures! Apparently the chemical industry briefly became too “green” for him, and the ACSH is more pro-chemical industry than the chemical industry itself!

Most amazingly, Dr. Ross also said this:

We haven’t “taken on” Agribusiness’ pesticides, Orac, because in truth there is simply no evidence that the approved use of ag. pesticides/herbicides is a cause of human disease at typical exposures. Do you have evidence to the contrary? I assume you don’t advocate buying organic produce to avoid those “dirty dozen” pesticide-laced fruits and veggies. I also assume you’d not want us to attack safe and useful products, whose evidence of toxicity is lacking, just to gain cred from chemophobic zealots. Lastly, please note that numerous academic experts in relevant fields have taken the PCP report to task.

Wow. Not a single bit of evidence that pesticides can cause human disease when used as approved? Really? No evidence at all?

Bullshit, Dr. Ross. I call bullshit. I’m sorry, but there’s just no other way to put it. As Mark Crislip snarked last week, it took me all of 55 seconds to find several studies and links. Here is but a sampling:

There were many more. Given that background, one can perhaps reasonably criticize the state of the evidence. One can argue that most of it is correlation, without strong evidence of causation. One can reasonably assert that some of the evidence is rather shaky. (To me, though, at least some of it is more concerning.) Regardless of whether Dr. Ross and I disagree on the strength of the evidence, it is risible in the extreme to claim with a straight face that there is no evidence whatsoever when there is evidence linking human disease to pesticide exposure, and in some cases it is evidence that clearly justifies more research. To say that there is “simply no evidence” that the use of pesticides can cause human disease at typical exposures is not only simply not true but it’s so wrong that it immediately knocks my assessment of Dr. Ross’ credibility down several notches just on the basis of the pure burning stupid of that statement alone. Finally, don’t forget to note Dr. Ross’ use of a term like “chemophobic zealots.” Remember, this is a man who takes incredible umbrage when his organization is referred to as “pro-industry.”

I guess my challenge will remain unanswered. Since Dr. Ross apparently couldn’t handle it, I perused the ACSH website again, as I haven’t looked at it in a while. Let’s see. There was criticism of the U.S. for “importing” the E.U.’s more restrictive chemical policies, a paean to a Cato Institute conference about the “war on carcinogens,” and an attack on a movie entitled Food, Inc.

Then there was this:

There she is, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, President and Founder of ACSH herself, going on and on about “chemophobia,” which she refers to as an “emotional, psychiatric problem.” What was that about Dr. Ross being upset when the ACSH was characterized as “pro-industry”? Talk about hypocrisy, particularly the part where ACSH claims to be respectful and not to engage in name-calling. Yet, here the leader of the ACSH is characterizing her ideological foes as having a psychiatric disorder (i.e., as mentally ill), while overstating the case by saying that the President’s Cancer Panel’s conclusions have “no basis whatsoever” in fact.

Give me a break.

Once again, I have to call bullshit. One can criticize the evidence in some cases as weak or just correlation without sufficient evidence of causation, but to say that there is “no evidence whatsoever” is thermonuclear burning stupid, far more akin to simplistic political talking points repeated ad nauseam by pundits like Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter than to anything scientific. I don’t know too many scientists who would say there is “no evidence whatsoever” for something like environmental effects on health. They might find the evidence unpersuasive, but they don’t deny that there is any evidence whatsoever. That’s pure propaganda, not science.

One thing Whelan said that I actually more or less agree with is that the mere finding of chemicals in the blood, urine, or other bodily fluids at low levels does not necessarily mean that there is a problem or that they are causing a health problem. However, the converse is also true. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t causing health problems. When enough strands of evidence are suggestive that these chemicals might be a problem and that there is a plausible biological mechanism for harm, it is entirely reasonable to to be concerned and urge more research, which is just what the PCP’s report did. In contrast, Dr. Whelan appears to be all about shutting down research. She’s also grossly exaggerating when she says that “all mainstream health organizations” have come out to say that the PCP report is “terribly distorted.” So far, all I’ve seen is the American Cancer Society doing that, and, as I pointed out yesterday, its criticism was actually fairly mild, with a surprising level of agreement between the ACS’s very own report on environmental influences on cancer released last fall and the PCP’s report.

One other thing I notice missing from the ACSH message. Notice how the ACSH concentrates virtually exclusively on chemicals, in fact bringing up BPA at every opportunity. There’s no mention of the alarm bells in the PCP report about the risk from cancer due to radiation used in medical imaging tests (which I myself have blogged about for mammography and CT scans), radiation and chemicals from military sources, and natural sources like radon gas. It seems rather odd that ACSH focuses like a laser beam on one part of the report, and that part is the part about pesticides used in agribusiness and industrial chemicals used in plastics manufacturing, like BPA. Why is this? One wonders, one does.

It’s clear that the ACSH has a message. Its message is that chemicals made by industry aren’t harmful, that they are just like natural chemicals (which is sort of true but also quite irrelevant), and that it’s a waste of time to study unknown interactions between environment and health because it “diverts attention” from known causes of cancer. Apparently Dr. Whelan thinks that scientists can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. After all, the two are not mutually exclusive. We can certainly concentrate on smoking and other known exposures that cause cancer while at the same time investigating the contribution of environmental exposure.

In the meantime, when it comes to the ACSH, I’ll stand up and take notice when I see it criticize big pharma for publishing fake journals or the chemical industry for something not related to tobacco. ACSH may be on the side of angels when it comes to, for example, vaccines, but that happens to be a position that is shared by the pharmaceutical industry. In other words, other than when it comes to the evils of tobacco, when the ACSH takes the right side of a position it appears to be mainly because for that issue the position of the relevant industry happens to be correct.

Comments

  1. #1 aimai
    May 11, 2010

    Very thoughtful post. Great points, Orac. I learned a lot about ACHS from this long takedown. Talk about regulatory capture! Until patients, families, and victims have the money to pay for their own think tanks we ought to expect that most of these organizations are actually industry astroturf unless proven otherwise.

    aimai

  2. #2 Dunc
    May 11, 2010

    in truth there is simply no evidence that the approved use of ag. pesticides/herbicides is a cause of human disease at typical exposures.

    I’ve encountered this piece of weaselling before – when he says “at typical exposures”, I’m pretty sure he means “at typical exposures experienced by end-consumers via residues“. Nobody gives much of a shit about agricultural workers.

  3. #3 Paul Browne
    May 11, 2010

    An interesting post Orac, looking at the ACSH website they do appear to be taking a more pro-tobacco industry line http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1874/pub_detail.asp and http://www.acsh.org/healthissues/newsID.1871/healthissue_detail.asp – though I think they may have a point about the difficulty of quitting smoking.

    I find the recent post of BPA more alarming http://www.acsh.org/healthissues/newsID.1885/healthissue_detail.asp there appears to be no recognizing the complexity of the problems surrounding the regulatory assessment of endocrine disrupters http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100421/full/4641122a.html and in particular the fact that low doses of BPA have been shown to cause problems in various animal species (e.g. http://endo.endojournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/146/9/4138).

    I hope ACSH are not turning into CFF, this is why independent voices like yours are so valuable.

  4. #4 Scientizzle
    May 11, 2010

    Having worked previously in a lab dedicated to research on Parkinson’s, I can tell you that the strong correlation between environmental exposure to pesticides and the development of Parkinson’s Disease certainly has plausible biological causality. Hell, a postdoc in our lab was regularly using doses of the pesticide rotenone to induce oxidative damage of dopaminergic neurons and other cell lines. (Note: rotenone is also one of the “green” pesticides that can be used in organic farming as well…just fyi.)

    If “typical exposures” is limited to the amount of pesticide/herbicide residue on store-bought produce, yeah there probably is minimal risk. For the farmers and migrant workers, however, there are some very plausible health risks associated with occupational exposure.

  5. #5 Dave
    May 11, 2010

    Reading this, I am reminded of earlier threads about Bill Maher: How you get to your position matters. Yes, ACSH has come to a correct conclusion on homeopathy and supplements, but just as Maher’s atheism is more of a political decision, based on where his friends and enemies stand, so too is the ACSH’s position: based on where its industry sponsors stand.

  6. #6 Calli Arcale
    May 11, 2010

    This is disturbingly illuminating. Dunc is right — ACSH is probably talking about risk to the end user and completely ignoring occupational exposure. (And Scientizzle is right about organic pesticides not necessarily being any better. That kind of goes along with what ACSH is saying about synthetic chemicals being largely the same as natural ones, but not with the outcome they were probably hoping, since it means the manufactured stuff can be every bit as dangerous as the stuff that grows in plants.)

    I am very disappointed in the ACSH. I had thought they were a science-based organization rather than a bunch of pro-industry ideologues dressed up in sciencey clothes. They may not think of themselves that way, of course; this may be unintentional, just as most of the pro-homeopathy folks (for instance) don’t realize their own bias. But it is not scientific, that’s for sure.

    I am inclined to be cautious about claims that a particular pesticide is harmful, and I have a cynical attitude towards the organic farming movement. That doesn’t change the fact that there is plenty of biological plausibility for harm from occupational exposure, and harm to the environment. I mean, the stuff is intended to be lethal to certain organisms, and it’s been said that we share half our DNA with bananas — it is not beyond the realm of possible that herbicides and antifungals and insecticides could harm us. Hell, I’d be more surprised if they couldn’t.

    Their retreat to “well, it’s not going to hurt the end user” is disingenuous. They’re intelligent people; they should know what’s being claimed. Either their bias is blinding them, or they are deliberately misunderstanding in order to argue in a context where the facts are more favorable to them.

  7. #7 Pablo
    May 11, 2010

    Unfortunately, when it coms to virtually any other scientific issue of environmental exposure or health besides tobacco, why is it that ACSH nearly seems to come down on the side of one of the aforementioned industries?

    Because they deny the potential risks caused by these industries, and therefore conclude that these industries provide important services to benefit mankind, which benefits consumers.

    This is very typical of a pro-industry attitude. Industry provides great services for everyone, so it is important to let them do whatever they want. That is being “consumer friendly.” Nah, we won’t make Wal-Mart follow zoning restrictions that were put in to prevent things like, predatory businesses that drive everyone else under, because giving in to Wal-Mart demands allows consumers to pay $.10 less for a box of Froot Loops.

  8. #8 darwinsdog
    May 11, 2010

    In a Fascist nation, of course agencies like ACSH is “pro-business.” What they are is pro-corporation and pro-profit for the private sector. The citizens, excuse me, the consumers, only exist as host for the corporate parasites to feed from, and quasi-governmental shills, latched into the tax-payers’ tissues, facilitate and partake of the parasitic glut-fest at the expense of the people. Whelan ought to have to pick vegetables by hand under the summer sun in a field heavily sprayed with agricultural biocides. I bet the spoiled, elitist bitch would keel over before noon, if she actually had to work for a living.

  9. #9 Anthro
    May 11, 2010

    The actions of ACSH remind me of the current Coca-Cola campaign splattered all over HuffPost (it seems to be gone now) that tries to convince me that its only purpose in this world is to support me in doing the very best for my children. After all, Coke is trying to have “less sugar” in schools! In addition to continued marketing to children, they are now trying to convince adults that they are “responsible” and “concerned”. Pepsi is doing something similar with Gatorade–marketing it as THE beverage for cool athletes so everyone will want it and then saying they are only targeting athletes.

    It also reminds me of the RbGH milk issue. When people wanted milk labeled as to whether or not the cows had been treated with it, the industry demanded to include a blurb stating that the treated milk was equally nutritious to the untreated milk. I guess it didn’t matter to them that the reason lots of people objected was that the use of RbGH drove small farmers out of business and caused pain and suffering to cows. The people won on this one, however, and RgBH is not much used now.

    As long as we allow marketing to pose as “concerned science”, this will continue. I’m very glad that you did this post and gave these goobers some well-deserved insolence.

  10. #10 Brett
    May 11, 2010

    Bullshit, Dr. Ross. I call bullshit. I’m sorry, but there’s just no other way to put it. As Mark Crislip snarked last week, it took me all of 55 seconds to find several studies and links, including:

    You might be rushing to conclusions. Considering the way she used “typical exposures”, my guess (as with that of some of the other commentators) is that she was talking about the consumers actually eating the produce, not the agricultural workers involved in growing it.

    It’s a little weaselly in terms of definition, but probably not incorrect on her part.

  11. #11 jen
    May 11, 2010

    Here’s a straightforward question: How does Paul Offit sleep at night knowing that his vaccine is contaminated with two pig viruses(China has pulled it) AND the fact that 90% of his profits from this stupid vaccine are from the U.S. (a country that really doesn’t benefit from a vaccine like this, as opposed to a developing country)? Go have a look-see at AoA. (J.B. wrote a nice piece about it).

  12. #12 JohnV
    May 11, 2010

    We’ve been over this jen.

  13. #13 Julian Frost
    May 11, 2010

    Brett@10

    It’s a little weaselly in terms of definition, but probably not incorrect on her part.

    A half-truth(and her comments definitely count) is the blackest of lies.

  14. #14 Scientizzle
    May 11, 2010

    Here’s a straightforward question: How can jen sleep at night when she tries to threadjack by asking at-best ignorant, at-worst misleading and obtuse questions?

    Back to the topic: the ACSH stance on variousscientific questions and the extent of industry influence on these positions.

  15. #15 Militant Agnostic
    May 11, 2010

    Calli Arcale @6
    They’re intelligent people; they should know what’s being claimed. Either their bias is blinding them, or they are deliberately misunderstanding in order to argue in a context where the facts are more favorable to them.

    I suspect it is a case of a context where the facts are more favorable to their funding sources.

  16. #16 Jeff
    May 11, 2010

    This article states:

    “EPA studies reveal that 100% of people tested have dioxins, PCBs, dichlorobenzene, and xylene in their fat cells, and carcinogenic benzene (89%) and percholoethlylene (93%) in their exhaled breath.”

    If this is true, doesn’t it suggest that “typical exposure” could overwhelm the liver’s ability to detoxify and excrete these chemicals?

  17. #17 Pierce R. Butler
    May 11, 2010

    From the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s summary of Non-Profit Organizations with Ties to Industry:

    AMERICAN COUNCIL ON SCIENCE AND HEALTH

    The following groups have contributed to ACSH in the past according to ACSH’s 1991 annual report. ACSH stopped disclosing corporate donors in the early 1990s.

    $25,000 and above

    * American Cyanamid Company
    * Anheuser-Busch Foundation
    * General Electric Foundation
    * Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation
    * ICI Agricultural Products, Inc.
    * ISK Biotech Corporation
    * Kraft, Inc.
    * Monsanto Fund
    * The NutraSweet Company
    * John M. Olin Foundation, Inc.
    * Pfizer, Inc.
    * Sarah Scalfe Foundation Incorporated
    * The Starr Foundation

  18. #18 Scientizzle
    May 11, 2010

    One thing I will state: I think the pro-industry voice is an important one to hear in these arguments in which the science (or lack thereof) informs the sociopolitical landscape. After all, it’s important to know (to make up an illustration) that pesticide X may be associated with a 2% increased liklihood of disease Y and runoff may impact local fish populations, but that pesticide X increases crop yields by 34% and may also decrease the trasmission of mosquito-borne disease Z. These sorts of cost-benefit analyses are complex to make, but they can only be made properly with all the relevant information.

    What I viscerally object to is the presentation of slanted analysis as impartial. I want to hear what SuperMegaCorp has to say about their product and their best scientific case for its use. But I want it to be honestly presented as that, and not stealth marketing by firms and thinktanks with official-sounding titles. I mean, how is the ACSH substantively different from the National Health Federation?

  19. #19 Ian
    May 11, 2010

    @Orac

    I think you know how your argument above is distinct from that of people who say that Mooney was wrong to say there is “no scientific evidence” to back up the vaccine/autism link, but it might behoove you to follow this up with an explanation of the difference. A person who is naive to the science could come along, replicate your method of doing a quick search of Pubmed, find 2 or 3 sciency-looking articles that purport a link, and then draw the same conclusion (that there is some evidence, and the dead horse must be further flogged).

    I realize that essentially the entirety of the high-quality evidence points to zero connection, but you yourself actually took on the argument that there is “no evidence” for the connection, coming down firmly on the one side. As I said, I know that there’s a difference between that position and yours on this issue, but it bears a follow-up, imo.

    @jen – how does he sleep at night? “On top of a pile of money, with many beautiful ladies.”

  20. #20 Denice Walter
    May 11, 2010

    I wonder if BP, Transocean, and Halliburton have contributed lately?

  21. #21 the bug guy
    May 11, 2010

    in truth there is simply no evidence that the approved use of ag. pesticides/herbicides is a cause of human disease at typical exposures.

    Um, no. That’s part of the reason why the US-EPA requires regular review and reregistration of pesticides. So that we can adjust applications and label details as new information comes available, or even to remove registration when the evidence indicates it to be the best action.

  22. #22 Todd W.
    May 11, 2010

    @Ian

    I had the same thoughts reading this article and the previous one. I wondered how long it would be before an anti-vaxer came along and misconstrued Orac’s arguments as supportive of their position.

  23. #23 T. Bruce McNeely
    May 11, 2010

    Orac, Dr. Ross is just POed at you for being a Big Pharma Shill and betraying the cause. You need to apologize and recant, or else give that money back now!

  24. #24 passionlessDrone
    May 11, 2010

    Hello friends –

    Once again, very nice post, Orac. If I understand correctly, you generally consider yourself to lean right; I’m curious on your opinion that, in general, the Repulicans favor the kind of ‘science’ pushed by the ACSH. [i.e., the rights war on science]

    I’ve been accused on this site, and others, of advocating an excessive precautionary approach (among other things). Some of the comments I see here regarding ‘normal’ exposures to pesticides, BPA, or whatever have me wondering where my positions sits.

    At heart, I’m just not convinced we are clever enough to understand the ways that small exposures to whatever avalanche of chemicals can be affecting us to a point where we can say that ‘everyday exposure’ is harmless; especially our infants. My reasoning is twofold:

    1) It seems that we have a variety of historical examples wherein our ability to detect damage was primarily mitigated by the power of our observational techniques. For example, the recent downgrading of an ‘acceptable’ blood level of lead; a few decades ago we figured out it was a bad thing to have as a pesticide, then a few more, we take it out of gasoline. Then, in the mid 2000’s, the EPA says, that yes, 10 ml could cause problems, seems to be associated with ADHD, and in fact, there may be no level considered ‘safe’. Subtle changes are still changes, and need not be immediately obvious to have important ramifications. What makes pesticides, for which we have striking examples of occupational exposure, any different? Why am I worried about this, but so many other seemingly clever people are not?

    2) Our available mechanisms for testing don’t really give us good ability to model the possibility of synergistic effects. We know that they occur, but as noted in Orac’s article yesterday, once we start wanting to throw other compounds into the mix, your computational requirements quickly become too cumbersome to be useful. But the real world is performing these calculations whether we can or not; and given that, I would again seem to be suffering from a lack of confidence in our ability to know that ‘everyday exposure’ is harmless.

    My biggest problem with this kind of determination is that the ramifications of being wrong seem to be worse than what might happen if we over aggressively regulated chemicals.

    On a side note, it really doesn’t help that the people that seem to be actively pushing the ‘there’s no problem’ “science” have a lot to gain from regulatory paralysis and state of stasis; highly reminiscent of global warming deniers.

    I am interested in anyones thoughts.

    – pD

  25. #25 Crommunist
    May 11, 2010

    @pD

    At some point though, you have to actually make a decision. You can only do that based on the best information of the time. It’s easy to come in afterward and say “if only we knew then what we know now,” but when you have to make a call now, you have to use the information you have.

    I had a similar discussion with my father, who felt that crashing satellites into the moon was a bad idea because “we (didn’t) know what could happen.” That’s an argument, I suppose, but we looked for life, couldn’t find any, looked harder, and harder, still didn’t find any, and so a reasonable expectation can be made that no living systems will be disrupted. If we’d found something to the contrary, then that sucks and we have to develop better tools. But it’s lunacy to suggest we shouldn’t do new things simply because we can’t 100% predict the outcomes.

    I reject your implied argument that people are not studying the unmeasured effects. We have monitoring systems in place and epidemiologists all over the planet doing research to find the link between various exposures and outcome. When we find things, we change our practices.

  26. #26 JohnV
    May 11, 2010

    @pD

    “2) Our available mechanisms for testing don’t really give us good ability to model the possibility of synergistic effects. … your computational requirements quickly become too cumbersome to be useful.”

    Is that not a reason why we use animal testing?

  27. #27 Scientizzle
    May 11, 2010

    pD, regarding this statement:

    My biggest problem with this kind of determination is that the ramifications of being wrong seem to be worse than what might happen if we over aggressively regulated chemicals.

    You do have to remember that this is a largely-speculative value judgement in many cases, and are strongly shaped by our individual tendency to view one’s own history, education, and desires as a reasonable approximation of the population at large. To put it another way: to a middle-class American, the possible/plausible risks of pesticide X on human health or environmental damage may seem to outweigh the benefit. To the farmer (small or big) who can better make a living using pesticide X, or the poor American who lives paycheck to paycheck and depends on cheaper food to get by, it’s another story. To refugee living in famine- and/or war-ravaged lands, American hand-wringing about pesticide X effects might be appalling roadblocks to mitigating broad starvation.

    Cost-benefit analyses are notoriously difficult things to do for one’s self…extrapolating those out to others in vastly different circumstances can get truly dicey.

  28. #28 Composer99
    May 11, 2010

    There’s nothing quite as amusing (in the ‘I must laugh or else I’ll cry/go mad’ kind of amusing) as someone describing a more-or-less social-democratic state such as the contemporary US as ‘fascist’.

  29. #29 Tracy W
    May 11, 2010

    pd: My biggest problem with this kind of determination is that the ramifications of being wrong seem to be worse than what might happen if we over aggressively regulated chemicals.

    I’m not so sure about this. Pretty much worldwide we face an ageing population, a serious need to rejig the economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will include a massive change in installed infrastructure, and rising pressures for healthcare spending (see http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/economicsunbound/archives/2009/09/where_are_healt.html). Oh and most of the Western countries are heading into this with high debt-GDP ratios. If we are to support these three big calls on the economy it strikes me that the more efficiency in the rest of it, the better.

  30. #30 passionlessDrone
    May 11, 2010

    Hi JohnV –

    Is that not a reason why we use animal testing?

    Sure we have animal studies, they have a lot of utility at exploring robust, single effects, but are increasingly difficult to use if your goal is to explore the effect of a multitude of small, but none the less real impacts. Unfortunately, it is being discovered that a lot of our biology is governed by a multitude of small changes, in addition to big ones.

    An article at Science Based Medicine regarding the ‘the complexity of cancer’ a few weeks ago makes this case very concisely regarding formation of tumors:

    The reason may well be due to the inheritance of multiple susceptibility genes of low penetrance, meaning that they don’t individually have a strong effect on the characteristics of a cell. Cancer actually involves changes in the expression levels of hundreds, if not thousands, of different genes. In fact, the way we now look at cancer is through network analysis of the levels of thousands of genes in the cell. We’ve gone from looking at single genes to looking at thousands upon thousands of genes. As Dr. Balmain concluded, cancer susceptibility and progression depend upon the emergent properties of many genes, each of which individually has a small effect, and these genetic variants affect the tumor cell, the microenvironment surrounding the tumor cell, or both. Moreover, depending upon the tumor type and situation, inflammatory networks can play opposite roles, either promoting or inhibiting tumor susceptibility and progression.

    Similarly the developing nervous system is a very complex process that does not lend itself towards a single insult exploratory model unless we are interested in only the most rudimentary understandings. While we can learn something by making a big splash with a single agent, our ability to make six, twenty, or a hundred small impacts and have a clear understanding of what was responsible is greatly, greatly hindered.

    What does an animal study look like that models in utero and developmental exposure to three different pesticides, one insecticide, two cleaning agents, and six endocrine disruptors? There are sublte, but very real differences in how different types of metabolites of BDE interact with thyroid metabolism, or different organophosphates are metabolized. In some instances the result is synergistic.

    And if your population of interest has PON1 mutation that effects organophosphate detoxification pathways, what then? How do we model the effect of thyroid metabolism mutations into this mixture? Regardless of the difficulty in making this type of distinction in the laboratory, this experiment is being carried out in our infants.

    Alas, I may just be overly cautious in my worries.

    – pD

  31. #31 Chance Gearheart, NREMT-P/EMD
    May 11, 2010

    @darwinsdog, 8

    I’m sorry to be rude here, and I’m as much for sarcasm and cynisism at groups that don’t do what they’re supposed to as anyone else, but seriously: Sod off with the Anarchist crap, expecially advocating violence against someone.

  32. #32 Ian
    May 11, 2010

    @pD

    Nothing that you’ve said is incorrect. The question simply becomes “so what?” What is the policy implication of your argument? I work in policy for the provincial cancer agency, and I know very well the limitations of using clinical tests to predict real-world outcomes. Many times we have to reverse previous decisions in the light of new evidence. Just as often, we get pressured to make new policy in the absence of evidence; the recent issue of the Zamboni procedure for MS is one example.

    The precautionary principle shouldn’t be used to inhibit actions in the presence of clear benefit but unclear risk – rather the opposite. We can only use the standard of what evidence is available at the time of the decision, and be fully open to reversing those decisions in the light of new, better evidence.

  33. #33 passionlessDrone
    May 11, 2010

    Hi Scientizzle & Tracy W & Crommunist –

    Great handles.

    I do not disagree with either of your statements per se; context is difficult to divest from personal biases and technology is largely our best option to solve some very real, and vexing problems. I only wonder if we have the wisdom to apply our knowledge in such a manner that the cure isn’t just as painfall as the problem, just in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, but ultimately, more damning.

    There are no guarantees and no guiding hand to make sure things work out OK. I do not disagree that we have to make decisions with our best available data, but might argue with the characterization that our best available data is sufficient to make anything but the most basic guesses; it it reminds me of Congress trying to legislate technology. It will probably have to do, however.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    – pD

  34. #34 Chance Gearheart, NREMT-P/EMD
    May 11, 2010

    @33, PassionlessDrone

    This is the great problem with any kind of medical treatment, from giving a simple IV to major surgery or even chemo/radiation therapies for cancer, in that we often harm the body to heal it. The problem is technology hasn’t advanced enough to the point where we can do things without having to go through or into something at any point. Sure, we can minimize injuries to surrounding tissue like with laprascopy or microsurgery, but still even those have risks.

    Until technology advances to the point that we can taylor nanomachines to repair certain tissues, which is probibly decades if not more away, we’re going to have to harm to heal in some cases.

    We have to do the best we can with the science we have available in the most humane way possible. I’ve seen people die of cancer – yeah, chemo is very unpleasent, and so is radiation, but atleast they aren’t just wasting away, spending every moment of life glued to a PCA Pump or screaming in agony. I’m sure Orac is the expert in this field and could write pages of personal experiences on it, I just push people from point A to point B.

  35. #35 Michael
    May 11, 2010

    pD, the problem with your argument is the same problem with Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager argues that one should follow the tenets of one’s religion because if one is wrong, the consequences will be disastrous. The problem is that logically that reasoning leads to one following the tenets of every religion in the world,which is impossible.
    Similarly, how would you decide how much evidence of possible harm there should be before applying your version of the precautionary principle? We can’t say anything is safe with certainty. Heck, we can’t say with certainty that blacks donating blood to whites isn’t harmful. Does that mean we should resegregate the blood supply?

  36. #36 Kathryn
    May 11, 2010

    Scientizzle, I think I’ve seen your rotenone studies, or similar ones in C. elegans. My lab has been studying copper, in the form of copper sulfate–a common fungicide approved for “organic” produce. We wonder about the workers in the vineyards, as grapevines are commonly treated with copper sulfate for mildew (but we don’t do human studies, just invertebrates).

  37. #37 Lettuce
    May 11, 2010

    @ Chance Gearheart

    > Sod off with the Anarchist crap

    With the anarchist crap? Well, you showed ‘em. Heh.

    I bet the stay outta your way now!

  38. #39 Gopherus Agassizii
    May 12, 2010

    Scientists who can say “I don’t know” are both sexy and trustworthy.

  39. #40 Tracy W
    May 12, 2010

    pD. I only wonder if we have the wisdom to apply our knowledge in such a manner that the cure isn’t just as painfall as the problem, just in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, but ultimately, more damning.

    I suspect we don’t have said wisdom, so I tend to favour distributed and interconnected political and economic systems that can respond flexibly as problems become apparent.

  40. #41 Neil Craig
    May 12, 2010

    I take it opposing MMR in the name of science but not questioning scares & frauds about catastrophic warming, passive smoking, AIDS, salt, low level radiation etc etc is not something to be considered disingenuous.

    And the reason why it isn’t as it seems is…?

  41. #42 Vicki
    May 12, 2010

    Neil–

    “Not questioning” means accepting unthinkingly; it is not at all disingenuous to look at the evidence and conclude that yes, AIDS really is an epidemic that has already killed millions of people, or that inhaling particulates and an addictive stimulant drug is harmful even if they come from someone else’s cigarettes. Things do not become frauds because you toss that list in there.

    (I’m guessing at your meaning, since what you have said is that both opposing MMR and accepting the warnings about all those other things is perfectly sincere. True or not, that seems entirely irrelevant to this thread, and basically irrelevant to other discussion here. The sincerity of the anti-vaccination activists is not the main issue.)

  42. #43 Neil Craig
    May 13, 2010

    If tou are saying there has been no fraud in the “discovery” of AIDS you are simply wrong. Equally so if you say there is real evidence, greater than normal statistical vaiabiliry, for the passive smoking claim. I note you do not even make such claims for the anti-nuclear scare, global warming or salt. None of these claims are, by definition, scientific & it is disingenous not to say so when discussing such disingenuity.

  43. #44 MartinM
    May 13, 2010

    Oh, look, Neil Craig ranting about basic facts of science without bringing a single argument of substance. There must be a ‘y’ in the day.

  44. #45 Joseph Hertzlinger
    May 16, 2010

    You left out the most important reason to think ACSH might be dubious: They don’t mention “regulatory capture” (or its near synonym “rent seeking”). This is in contrast to the Cato Institute or the American Enterprise Institute.

  45. #46 passionlessDrone
    May 17, 2010

    Hello friends –

    I ran into this article this afternoon and thought of the discussions we had here:

    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1989564,00.html

    Led by Maryse Bouchard in Montreal, researchers based at the University of Montreal and Harvard University examined the potential relationship between ADHD and exposure to certain toxic pesticides called organophosphates. The team analyzed the levels of pesticide residue in the urine of more than 1,100 children ages 8 to 15 and found that those with the highest levels of dialkyl phosphates, which are the breakdown products of organophosphate pesticides, had the highest incidence of ADHD. Overall, they found a 35% increase in the odds of developing ADHD with every tenfold increase in urinary concentration of the pesticide residue. The effect was seen even at the low end of exposure: kids who had any detectable, above-average level of the most common pesticide metabolite in their urine were twice as likely as those with undetectable levels to record symptoms of the learning disorder.

    These weren’t the children of farm workers; they were just kids. I’ve yet to read the study.

    – pD

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