Monday, May 23, 2005

Doubt production: a growth industry

In an important article in this month''s (June 2005) Scientific American, epidemiologist David Michaels of George Washington University School of Public Health lays out the enemy's battle plan in their assault on health and safety regulations. Its title, "Doubt is their Product," is taken from a 1969 memo from an executive of the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company (now owned by RJ Reynolds): "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public." We posted on one aspect of this recently here regarding regulation of benzene. But this article has much more, depressingly more [disclaimer; I know the author].

Consider the beryllium standard. Michaels had previously been assistant secretary of energy for environment, health and safety at the Department of Energy in the Clinton Administration. On his appointment the standard for beryllium exposure, a lightweight metal used in the production of nuclear warheads that is extremely toxic, had not changed since 1949. It was responsible for causing many cases of a serious scarring of the lungs called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) which affected not only workers machining the metal but also those working nearby and even residents living around the factory. By the time of Michaels' appointment it had become abundantly clear that the old standard was woefully inadequate. The process of promulgating a new standard in the 1990s was met by a counter attack by Brush Wellman, the leading producer of the metal, who hired Exponent, a California consulting company to do a series of reviews which suggested skin exposure was a factor (not just inhalation) and that size, surface area and number of metal particles might be important factors in CBD. More research was needed, they concluded.

After due consideration, the Clinton DOE decided there was enough information to issue a rule and the exposure standard for DOE facilities was lowered by a factor of 10. But it applied only to DOE workers. Those in the private sector still worked under the old standard, ten times higher. When OSHA tried to follow DOE's lead in 1998, it became enmired in procedure. By 2002, the Bush DOE had decided more research was indeed needed. That is the current situation.

As Michaels makes clear, this is not an isolated example. He cites the fact that of almost 3000 large volume chemicals (one million pounds or more annually), OSHA has enforceable exposure limits for less than 500. In the past 10 years has issued new standards for only two. All others come under "voluntary" standards set before 1971. They have been untouched by new science. The standard setting process has become so muscle bound and cumbersome and the political will so weak that it is almost impossible to set new standards.

Part of the reason is that the business of "manufacturing scientific uncertainty" has become a growth industry. Michaels gives numerous chilling examples involving drugs and notes the effect of the Supreme Court Daubert decision in preventing legitimate scientists from testifying in tort cases on behalf of deserving plaintiffs (see earlier post here). He recounts briefly some much publicized manipulation of scientific advisory committees by the Bush Administration and also alerts us to another ominous industry weapon, the Data Quality Act. This was snuck into law via a midnight rider on a 2001 appropriations bill and passed without hearings or debate. The DQA sounds great. It authorizes the development of guidelines for "ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information." What it means in practice is that industry can easily slow or halt regulations by challenges of any scientific data used to support a regulation. The challenges then trigger cumbersome and lengthy procedures. It has been used to attack climate change assessments, WHO dietary guidelines and even NIH advice that we limit our salt consumption.

I haven't done full justice to this fascinating but also disheartening, even frightening, article. Scientific American is available on newstands or digitally for $5 here.