Science Appears to Be in Retreat

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This article first appeared December 30, 2005 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Advocates of anti-science agendas keep trying to change physiological laws through litigation, regulation, and pressure on corporations. This is illustrated by three recent health news items that conspired to make me worry the world has finally gone crazy.

--First, there is Microsoft's plan to eliminate PVC plastics from their products over the next few years, due to "health concerns."

--Second, I learned that Iowa had banned "preservatives" from children's vaccines -- and that about twenty other states were contemplating similar action.

--Third, Consumer Reports -- a publication of Consumers Union, a non-profit (but well-financed) advocacy organization -- joined the broad-based media assault on the pharmaceutical industry. Their latest broadside -- "Prescription for Change" -- attacked the concept of "dangerous drugs," pointing out twelve recent examples of pharmaceuticals that they labeled as "safety-system failures." They call for -- what else -- Congressional action to protect us from these toxic drugs.

Something is terribly amiss with our system of scientific communication when so many anti-science events can occur almost simultaneously.

The PVC phase-out plan was sparked by self-appointed consumer groups with longstanding anti-chemical, anti-technology agendas, and with not a shred of valid scientific evidence to support their programs. They condemn this plasticizer because it allegedly causes cancer via release of such toxins as phthalates and dioxin. Lois Gibbs, the leader of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, terms dioxins "the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested." Conveniently, she ignores the untidy fact that an Environmental Protection Agency Scientific Advisory Board, in a 2001 report, found no evidence of human toxicity, including causation of cancer, from dioxin.

Her organization is closely related to another advocacy group that has been calling for the eradication of phthalates for almost ten years. The American Council on Science and Health, however, issued a report in 1999 showing that the phthalates in question pose no human health risk, a conclusion confirmed by subsequent government panels. But these groups seem to be making inroads with compliant corporate directors, who apparently fear publicity accusing them of being inadequately "green."

The attack on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the pharmaceutical industry has also been done before. Several of the accused drugs were on FDA researcher David Graham's "Dangerous Five" list earlier this year. CU and Graham apparently have no insight or appreciation of the huge benefits these drugs render. They only seem to care about the attendant risks, which pale in comparison. Noting the benefits of prescription drugs doesn't garner enough headlines for CU, apparently.

The worst of this lot is the assault on vaccine preservatives. How simple it is to say, well we don't know for sure about the safety of these chemicals, so... Remember all that concern about mercury-derived thimerosal? Every scientific study demonstrated there was no evidence of a link to autism or any other disease, but hey, let's not "take any chances" -- get rid of it! The learned Solons of Iowa took that approach, without thought to the unintended consequences: vaccines will now have to be administered in single-dose vials to avoid contamination. That will make them much more expensive, which may result in children not getting the vaccinations they need. How many lives will that cost? And for what? To capitulate to greedy lawyers, anti-vaccine activists, demagogues, and those harboring superstitious fears of vaccine-caused diseases, which do not exist.

Where are the scientists? Those of us in public health and consumer education have a responsibility to speak up now, to tell the public the truth about these unscientific, agenda-driven campaigns. Where are the scientists who sat on the aforementioned SAB-dioxin panel? How many times do we need to read the false claim that "dioxin is the most carcinogenic substance known to man" before one of those folks speaks out?

Of course, many activists have no shame and little memory: as soon as one chemical is banned, they move on to the next, and the next, etc., ad infinitum. So I hope Microsoft doesn't think it will get itself off the green hook by caving in on PVC: they will soon be dealing with other demands for bans and "phase-outs." Their collaboration will make it harder for other companies to resist when they are pressured to abandon safe and useful products. Get ready.