Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Science fantasy for hire

In a news article in the current issue of Environmental Science and Technology Paul Thacker writes about a document he found buried in a document repository related to EPA's recent review of the risks of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). We have written about this a number of times here (and here), but the "marketing letter" Thacker discovered puts a spotlight on the shadowy world of hired gun consulting companies whose task is to muddy the waters sufficiently that the regulatory wheels grind to a halt. Those of us in the business know this goes on all the time, but it is still startling to see the strategy spelled out in black and white.

From Thacker's story:
Tucked away inside the U.S. EPA’s docket on PFOA, a chemical manufactured by DuPont, is a 5-page letter written in April 2003 by the Weinberg Group, an international scientific consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. The letter is addressed to DuPont’s vice president of special initiatives, Jane Brooks, and lays out a proposal for how the Weinberg Group can help the company deal with a growing regulatory and legal crisis over PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). PFOA is a common building block of the perfluorocarbon family of chemicals, which are renowned for their water and stain resistance. PFOA is the compound used to make Teflon and was once used in other products such as Scotchgard, Stainmaster, and Gore-Tex.


“The constant theme which permeates our recommendations on the issues faced by DuPont is that DUPONT MUST SHAPE THE DEBATE AT ALL LEVELS,” states the letter (emphasis in original). For 23 years, the letter continues, the Weinberg Group “has helped numerous companies manage issues allegedly related to environmental exposures. Beginning with Agent Orange in 1983, we have successfully guided clients through myriad regulatory, litigation and public relations challenges posed by those whose agenda is to grossly over regulate, extract settlements from, or otherwise damage the chemical manufacturing industry.” (EST)
Dupont confirmed to Thacker that they had hired Weinberg but wouldn't say for what purpose.
Passages from the letter describe how the firm will develop a defense strategy based on science. “[W]e will harness, focus and involve the scientific and intellectual capital of our company with one goal in mind—creating the outcome our client desires.” Another sentence reads, “This would include facilitating the publication of papers and articles dispelling the alleged nexus between PFOA and teratogenicity as well as other claimed harm.”
In other passages Weinberg describes how they will engage as consultants scientists they feel might be useful to PFOA's opponents:
For example, the Weinberg letter lists a series of proposed tasks designed to limit liability, including the recruitment of scientific experts on PFOA “so as to develop a premium expert panel and concurrently conflict out experts from consulting with plaintiffs.” Experts who worked for DuPont through the Weinberg Group would have been unable to testify for plaintiffs.

“They’re offering to get rid of inconvenient witnesses for the other side,” says [Dr. David Ozonoff of Boston University]. He adds that he has received similar requests in the past from lawyers asking him to consult on cases. “I wouldn’t have to testify,” he says, “but I knew right away what they were doing was trying to conflict me out of a case.”
There apparently is no compunction about raising outrageous trial balloon arguments, either:
Ozonoff, who sat on EPA’s Science Advisory Board review panel for PFOA, points to a passage in the memo that details how to identify the likely health benefits of the chemical “by analyzing existing data, and/or constructing a study to establish” that PFOA is safe and “offers real health benefits.” The next sentence mentions the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and the prevention of coronary artery disease.

“That blew me away,” says Ozonoff, adding that data on PFOA seem to show an effect on lipid metabolism; this raises concerns that the chemical may actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. “This [proposal] is a ‘manufacturing doubt’ strategy. If you say, ‘Gee, this might cause heart disease,’ then they’ll come back with another story that says it’s good for your heart.” Constructing this sort of narrative, he says, sets a research agenda that any independent scientist wandering into the field must address.
When confronted with this, Weinberg's President, Mr. Matthew Weinberg, didn't push the point. Instead he dismissed it as "marketing":
Thacker: Did you find any, has there been any, um, anything published in the peer-reviewed literature that would lead one to believe that?

Weinberg: I have no...I am not an expert on PFOA and I couldn’t tell you what’s been published or what hasn’t been.

Q: Okay. Alright. I just wanted to give you a chance....Do you have anything else to say?

A: I guess I have a question for you. I don’t understand what you see in that document that’s worthy of a conversation between us.

Q: Well, it was very interesting, is when I showed this passage, that passage, particularly to David Ozonoff. I don’t know if you know who he is.

A: I’ve heard the name, but I can’t place him.

Q: Um, he’s at BU. He was on the SAB panel for PFOA and he, uh, called that particular passage sort of, uh, “fantasy thinking.”

A: Okay. Uh, uh, I would...would suggest strongly that the letter you are looking at appears to have been a marketing document.

Q: Okay.

A: I do not think that it is a document that in any way, shape, or form, makes claims, nor is it intended to represent a specific point of view. It is a marketing document telling them things we maybe think...are possible. But I believe it clearly just read me a part that says “study and analysis are needed.” I don’t believe the document purports to say that that’s been done.

Q: Okay.

A: It may have been done. It may have been done by others. I don’t believe this document makes this claim that we had done that work at this point or that we were ever going to do that work.
In other words, fantasy thinking. I am not aware that this piece of scientific weirdness ever made it into the argument, probably because it couldn't pass the laugh test, much less the smell test.

You can find a .pdf of the Weinberg document here. The Thacker article too, is fascinating. And the well respected journal where it appears is published by the American Chemical Society, whose members, I am sure, are not happy about the commercial perversion of their science. Good for them.