A 25th Anniversary Commentary
from Dr. Elizabeth Whelan
American Council on Science and Health:
After I received my doctorate from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1971, I began writing on health issues for consumer magazines Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, and others and found it fascinating that these magazines focused so heavily on purely hypothetical health risks and totally ignored real health hazards, like smoking. (Indeed, the editors I worked with regularly spiked my articles highlighting smoking as a risk, saying they would anger advertisers. I protested about this constantly.)
On April 3, 1973, I accepted a freelance writing assignment from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer: they wanted a background paper on something called "the Delaney Clause" which I had never heard of.
I was soon to learn that the Delaney Clause was part of the 1958 Food Additive Amendment, and it banned any food additive that caused cancer in laboratory animals. That brief, isolated, assignment prompted me (on my own time, at my own expense) to write a book on the history of food scares: Panic in the Pantry.
When the manuscript was drafted, I asked Dr. Fredrick Stare, founder of the Harvard Nutrition Department, to write a preface. He liked the manuscript so much that he became involved as a co-author. The book argued that our food supply was safe and that banning chemicals "at the drop of a rat" had no scientific basis. When it was published in 1976 it shocked many, particularly those in the media, as the prevailing popular wisdom was that organic, "chemical-free" food was superior. And no one else had then prominently challenged that misconception.
Panic in the Pantry, which was listed by the Wall Street Journal editorial page as one of the best books of 1976, was the first consumer-oriented book to challenge the popular wisdom that "chemicals" were inherently dangerous and that natural was better. Dr. Stare and I later wrote books that elaborated on that same theme, including The l00% Natural, Purely Organic, Cholesterol-Free, Megavitamin, Low-Carbohydrate Nutrition Hoax. I later took on the issue of chemicals in the general environment with books like Toxic Terror.
At the same time, I wrote and published books dealing with real health threats, including A Smoking Gun? How the Tobacco Industry Gets Away with Murder.
At some point around 1978, Dr. Stare and I asked the question: why are there not more scientists speaking out to counter misinformation about the relationship between chemicals, nutrition, the environment, and health? Twenty-five years ago, we wrote to fifty scientists including Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug who was among ACSH's founding directors asking them to join an effort to bring the message of sound science to consumers, via the media. And the blueprint of ACSH came into being.
With the legal and financial assistance of two attorneys my father and my husband ACSH's non-profit, tax-exempt status was secured. And with assistance from former Secretary of the Treasury William Simon, ACSH was introduced to the Scaife Foundation and John M. Olin Foundation, which provided ACSH with its first financial support.
ACSH adversaries have over the years referred to ACSH as a creation of "the petrochemical industry." In fact, though, ACSH did not accept funding even general operating funding from any corporation or trade association for the first two years of operation. I initially ran things that way because when we wrote Panic in the Pantry (Atheneum, 1976), I was regularly called a "shill" for the food industry. Barbara Walters, for example, canceled a TV appearance by me, calling me a "paid liar for industry" even though I had no support whatsoever from the food industry or any other industry in writing and promoting the book.
So I convinced the original Board of Directors that ACSH should only accept funding from private foundations. For two years we tried that, but the media still regularly implied that ACSH had industry support. When we released a report saying that New Jersey's so-called "cancer alley" was not a real case of industrial chemicals raising cancer rates, the Star-Ledger called ACSH a surrogate for the petrochemical industry. The ACSH Board of Directors concluded that what critics objected to was not ACSH's funding but ACSH's views and that in avoiding corporate donations we were limiting ACSH's fundraising potential to no avail. So the Board voted to henceforth accept funding from corporations as long as no strings were attached. This remains the fundraising policy today, with about 40% of ACSH funding coming from private foundations, about 40% from corporations, and the rest of the sale of ACSH publications.
Sometimes, if reporters complain about our corporate funding, I remind them that they are funded by corporations and advertisers as well. Phil Donahue was stunned into silence when I pointed that out on his show, and Ed Bradley once threw down his microphone and stormed out of an interview with me. The important thing, though, is not the source of your funding but the accuracy of the points you make, and ACSH's scientific advisors and use of peer review keep us honest.
Since 1978, ACSH has grown from fifty scientists to nearly 400. In the past quarter century, on a budget that has never exceeded $l.5 million (compared to our adversaries in the so-called consumer advocacy/environmental movement, with budgets of $20 million or more annually), ACSH has entered public debates on issues ranging from food safety to cigarette smoking, environmental chemicals to bioterrorism. Enter terms like "cancer epidemic," "cranberry scare," "lead and health," "junk food tax," "cigarette warning label," and many more into the Internet search engine Google and you will find that ACSH comes up #l each time.
As ACSH begins its second quarter of a century, its missions remain the same: a) promote sound science in regulation, in public policy, and in the court room; and b) assist consumers, via the media, in distinguishing real health threats from purely hypothetical ones.