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   Media and Environment - June 1998
The Networker
I. Editor's Note: Media and Environment Carolyn Raffensperger
II. When Science Counts: A guide to reporting on environmental issues Nancy J. Myers
Carolyn Raffensperger
III. "Living Downstream": The New England Journal of Medicine and conflict of interest Paul Brodeur
Bill Ravanesi
IV. Science Communication: An EPA committee and endocrine disruption Peter deFur
V. Science Communication: The role of the public - EDSTAC Davis Baltz
VI. Letters to the Editor Gordon Durnil
Marty Teitel
VII. New Briefs SEHN

  I. Editor's Note: Media and the Environment   TOP
By Carolyn Raffensperger

Today we are going to name names and sing the praises of some people important to the environmental movement: reporters and editors who have told the story of environmental sciences and grappled with uncertainty in such a way that the public was well-served.

The focus of this issue of the Networker is on how the media deals with science in environmental and public health stories. The Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) was created in part because the research on dioxin was misrepresented in major newspapers.

As the major stories of our age have unfolded - endocrine disruption, rising cancer rates, collapsing fisheries and global warming - some reporters and editors have done an exceptional job of explaining these issues. Bette Hileman at Chemical and Engineering News, Janet Raloff, of Science News, Phil Shabecoff formerly at the New York Times, Richard Stone writing for Science, Nancy Myers, formerly at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, and George Lucier at Environmental Health Perspectives, and Gary Lee at the Washington Post have consistently stood for journalistic integrity. That is, they understood the science, translated it clearly for the public and they weren't swayed by corporate money or threats.

Corporate money increasingly dictates how science is reported. Recently the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a book review of "Living Downstream, An Ecologist Looks at Cancer". The review dismissed the link between environmental pollution and cancer and was, coincidentally, authored by a doctor associated with W.R. Grace and Co., a chemical company. (See the article in this issue by Bill Ravenesi and Paul Brodeur.) Just the month before that book review, NEJM published an editorial by another scientist who had accepted money from the Chemical Manufacturers Association. That editorial, not surprisingly, argued against the connection between environmental estrogens and breast cancer.

In the next weeks SEHN is joining other organizations under the leadership of the National Environmental Trust in signing letters to 40 major U.S. health and medical journals, the Society of Environmental Journalists, National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Newspaper Ombudsmen.

We call for journalists to fully disclose the affiliation and financial support of scientists by saying "It's time for mainstream reporters to follow the lead of the 'science press' and provide their readers full disclosure around their scientific sources. It is no longer appropriate for reporters simply to identify a source as a 'Ph.D.' with no other information--as if that designation alone accords the source objectivity. By treating scientists as they do their other sources, science, health and environment reporters will help ensure balanced reporting of highly complex and controversial subjects. This will only increase the public's trust in the work in which your members are engaged." The signers of the letters also urge editors to establish and enforce conflict of interest and affiliation/financial disclosure policies.

We at SEHN would go one step further and encourage all newspaper editors to require writers of opinion editorials to disclose financial conflicts of interest and affiliations. Too often a newspaper runs an opinion by a scientist who is affiliated with a university. What the identification fails to reveal is that the scientist received the funding for her research from industry. By failing to reveal the source of the funding, the newspaper has prevented the public from evaluating the results.


  II. When Science Counts: A guide to reporting on environmental issues   TOP
By Nancy J. Myers & Carolyn Raffensperger

This guide is for journalists who seek to report fairly and accurately on stories about the environment, technology, and human health. These complex stories often have a large scientific component; and the science is filled with uncertainties. In reporting them, the journalist has a crucial role.

Dorothy Nelkin writes in "Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology " [revised edition, W.H. Freeman, 1995, page 2]: "Good reporting can enhance the public's ability to evaluate science policy issues and the individual's ability to make rational personal choices; poor reporting can mislead and disempower a public that is increasingly affected by science and technology and by decisions determined by technical expertise."

All in the code
Professional journalists recognize their obligation to be "fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information," in the words of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Especially relevant to reporting on science and the environment are the code's injunctions to test the accuracy of information from all sources; gather as much information as possible on sources' reliability; make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent; tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so; give voice to the voiceless, remembering that official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.

But reporting on science and the environment poses special challenges even to the most diligent and ethical journalist. How does a non-scientist evaluate research reports? Analyze whether the science is "sound"? Screen for bias? Detect conflict of interest? Interpret numbers? Evaluate the probability of harm?

This paper analyzes two kinds of problems that make environmental reporting difficult - hidden assumptions and the dynamics of undisclosed conflicts of interest and bias - and suggests key questions to address them.

Understand the assumptions: What makes science "sound"?
Government and industry officials often claim to support "sound science" -a term that carries weight, but also several hidden assumptions. In the interlocking worlds of industry, academic research and government policy, "sound science" is often shorthand for a particular kind of research and analysis that includes risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. The way these concepts are interpreted and used often drives the interpretation of research results out of the realm of science and into the realm of policy.

Risk assessment
The theory and techniques of risk assessment were originally designed for the field of engineering but have subsequently been applied to environmental and public health problems, where they may or may not be a good fit. Journalists and the public alike often assume that science can accurately predict any harm likely to result from products or processes; that cause and effect can usually be proven scientifically; and that the lack of proof of harm means that a product or process is safe.

In reality, it is very difficult to prove cause and effect to the satisfaction of scientific standards, for good reason: the advancement of scientific knowledge requires a high level of certainty. But science used for regulation and public policy may require different standards.

In the quest for certainty, risk assessment has been used to measure a very narrow range of measurable harm - usually death or cancer. Over the decades, scientists have worked out techniques for measuring the cancer causing properties of some products and limited processes. In controlled laboratory conditions and documented long-term observations, scientific proof of cause and effect may be demonstrated.

In effect, risk assessment has been narrowed to a search for proof that death, cancer or some other adverse effect is caused by a product or technology. The key words are "proof" and "causality." For instance, an industry facing regulators or courts may insist that research show, with absolute certainty, that its product or process caused people to contract cancer.

But often a problem is too large, its causes too diverse, or the effects too long term to be sorted out with scientific experiments and observations that would prove cause and effect. It is next to impossible to take problems such as a local cluster of cancer cases, global warming, or disturbances in human endocrine systems into the laboratory.

Lack of scientific proof of harm does not mean a product or technology is safe. Although PROOF may be elusive, important scientific EVIDENCE may have accumulated - in the form of observations, case studies, or predictions based on current knowledge - to indicate that a problem is linked to products or processes that disrupt the environment and human physiology. In the face of scientific uncertainty, deciding whether a chemical or technology is safe becomes a matter of policy, not science. In those circumstances, risk assessment may be misleading. It may suggest that lack of evidence of harm is evidence of safety. It may give the benefit of the doubt to products and processes that are harmful.

Cost-benefit analysis
Closely related to risk assessment and even more problematic is the technique of cost-benefit analysis - shorthand for understanding the economic consequences of regulating a technology or product. It usually weighs a company's lost profits against possible harm to the environment and public health.

Cost-benefit analysis attempts to place a dollar value on goods that are not in the monetary system: human life and health and the well-being of the natural world. Because these goods are not easily quantifiable, a surrogate is often used, such as how much consumers are willing to pay for safer products, how much insurance companies are willing to pay for damage, or the cost to a company of future lawsuits. Such measures are neither uniform nor democratically determined. Moreover, the immediate cost of regulation to the company concerned often receives greater consideration than the future, difficult-to-measure costs or benefits to society.

Journalists can probe the assumptions of risk assessment by asking questions such as:

  • What risks have been assessed?
  • What possible harms have not been considered?
  • What degree of evidence would be required to prove cause and effect?
  • What evidence, short of proof, exists to suggest a link between certain products and processes and certain harmful effects?
  • Does the evidence warrant public attention?
  • Is suffering or damage likely if we wait for proof before taking action?
  • Have less harmful alternatives been considered?
  • Have they been overridden by economic considerations?
  • Whose costs and benefits have been calculated?
  • What costs and benefits have been eliminated from the equation?
  • How have values been assigned to non-monetary goods such as human life and health?
Bias and conflict of interest: Follow the money, check the numbers
All journalists know the difference between bias - the lenses through which each of us views the world - and conflict of interest: the clash between the public interest and the "private pecuniary interest" of the individual concerned, to quote Black's Law Dictionary. The difference is money.

Money vs. idealism
An increasing practice in the field of science is the surge of industry backed third-party advocacy institutes, research centers and think tanks. These institutes often develop scientific findings that seem to run counter to the science that is used to develop environmental legislation.

Most observers recognize that no science is pure, objective and value free. A scientist may indeed have a strong commitment (bias) toward protecting the environment and public health. But is the effect of this bias the same as the pressure of financial obligations?

Often, more attention is paid to bias than to conflict of interest. It is customary to cover an environmental story, like many others, by presenting opposing viewpoints (biases). But the questions that may reveal conflict of interest are not always asked.

Skewed graphics, blithe comparisons
Either bias or conflict of interest may be concealed in numbers- especially the graphics, models, and metaphors based on them. Numbers are not always what they seem. We have learned, for example, that normal body temperature is 98.6' Fahrenheit. But it is not. It is actually 98.2'. The number was first measured, averaged, and rounded to the nearest degree Celsius: 37. But when it was converted to Fahrenheit, the rounding was lost, and 98.6 was taken as correct. [John Allen Paulos, "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Basic Books", 1995, page 139] Methods by which researchers derive numbers should always be transparent.

Data can be presented graphically to support a particular interpretation. For instance, the scale on which a bar graph is based may either dramatize or minimize differences. A bar graph in pounds will show little difference between low birth weight babies and normal ones, whereas a scale of ounces will show a large difference.

Scientists rarely use numerical metaphors, but reporters often do. Paulos says, "It is by turns amusing and depressing to track the way descriptions of numerical relations depend on their author's intentions." [Paulos, page 79] He points out that every human on earth could fit in a 20x20 box the height of the Grand Canyon. But if humans were placed end to end, we would stretch to the moon and back eight times. The metaphor illustrates a belief about population size: the Grand Canyon metaphor indicates that the population is small while the moon metaphor indicates that the population is large.

Faulty models
Computer models are among the most valuable and problematic tools available in environmental and public health research. They are the best method available for compiling vast amounts of information to assess problems on the scale of global warming - research that incorporates multiple lines of evidence and many data points.

But computer models used in risk assessment and epidemiology are sometimes faulty. They may be based on default settings that are untested against site-specific data. They may not incorporate multiple lines of evidence that confirm or deny the hypothesis being tested.

Tracking down the designer of the computer model, determining how the default settings were established, and learning what data were used and which were excluded can be a valuable if time-consuming exercise. Studies have shown that whether a chemical is classified as carcinogenic or not can literally come down to the inclusion - or exclusion - of a rat or two.

Questions to ask:

  • Who funded this research or paid for its publication?
  • Was the research peer reviewed?
  • Who funded those who reviewed the research?
  • Whose financial interests are served by the results?
  • What are the researchers' reputations in the field?
  • What stake do the researchers have in the results?
  • Is it clear how the data and conclusions were arrived at?
  • Who made the models, and what went into them?
  • Do the graphics make a political point?
  • Are the metaphors and comparisons appropriate?

Reporters do great service by making abstruse research reports understandable, by reporting the human stories - the "anecdotal" but real evidence of toxic injuries and environmental damage - and by presenting opposing views on controversial findings.

But good reporting on environmental stories with a heavy scientific component has less to do with refusing to take sides than with seeing clearly, asking the right questions, probing between the lines, and tracing stories back to their sources. It is hard work. It is the work of good journalism.

As Nelkin says [Nelkin, page 170]: "Scientists and journalists are negotiating the public meaning of science and technology. This terrain, today more than ever, is contested as journalists increasingly - and appropriately - probe issues of scientific responsibility and accountability, questioning the ideologies and social priorities that guide science policy decisions."


  III. "Living Downstream": The New England Journal of Medicine
        and Conflict of Interest
  TOP
By Paul Brodeur & Bill Ravanesi

Old Tricks
Can The New England Journal of Medicine be up to some old and long-discredited tricks and can it be up to these tricks with a long-discredited company such as W.R. Grace? In a review of Sandra Steingraber's book "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment," which appeared in the Journal (Vol. 337, No. 21, Nov. 20, 1997), Jerry H. Berke, who is identified as an M.D., M.P.H. living in Acton, Massachusetts, accuses Sandra Steingraber, PhD, of having produced a "biased work" for daring to suggest that (a) we are in the midst of a cancer epidemic, and that (b) chemical residues and pesticides in food and drinking water are probably more to blame for the recent steep increase in the incidence of cancer than AIDS, improved diagnostic techniques, and so-called life-style factors, such as fatty diet and cigarette smoking.

To support his argument, Dr. Berke cites the findings of just one study--a 1995 investigation published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute by Dr. Susan Devesa and some colleagues at the National Cancer Institute, who compared cancer incidence in the five-year period from 1975-1979 with the period 1987-1991, and declared that the increased incidence of 18.6% among males and 12.4% among females could be largely ascribed to known factors, such as better detection, AIDS, smoking, and exposure to sun, and not to environmental causes.

Dr. Berke goes on to cite the conclusions of an accompanying editorial co-authored by Dr. Philip Cole, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama (and a long-time paid consultant of the electric utility industry), who warns that a casual interpretation of cancer statistics can "lead the unwary to see a rise in cancer where none has occurred," and to assume that "this rise was due to environmental contamination."

Dr. Berke chooses not to quote Dr. Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., one of Devesa's co-authors and a former director of the epidemiological and biostatistics program at the National Cancer Institute, who told Jane Brody of The New York Times that environmental factors might be involved in the increases found in cancer of the brain, liver, testicles, kidney, and breast.

Dr. Berke does not mention the fact that only about one-third of the sharp increase in Non-Hodgkins lymphoma--the cancer of the immune system that killed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis--can be ascribed to AIDS (as Berke asserts) and organ transplantation, for the simple reason that far and away the steepest increase in this disease has occurred among people 60 and older, which is an age group least affected by AIDS and less likely to undergo organ transplant surgery.

Apparently, Dr. Berke is unaware that a 1990 study conducted by Devra Lee Davis, then a professor at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, and published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, found that the incidence of brain cancer in people under the age of 45 had increased 2% a year from 1973-1988. Another study by Davis published in The Lancet, the world-renowned British medical journal, found that the incidence of cancer of all types has risen sharply during the previous 20 years among people 55 or older in the United States, Japan, and four European nations.

Dr. Berke must somehow have missed seeing the story that ran on September 29, 1997, on the front page of The New York Times and in most of the nation's other leading newspapers about a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute showing that the rate of increase in the incidence of cancer among the nation's children is nearly 1% a year. Acute lymphocytic leukemia among boys and girls increased 27% between 1973 and 1990. Brain cancer among children increased nearly 40% during the same period.

Apparently, Dr. Berke is unaware that in 1997 the American Cancer Society issued a report stating that one out of every two American men will develop cancer in his lifetime, and that one out of every three American women will develop cancer in her lifetime.

No cancer epidemic? One out of every two American men? One out of every three American women? What planet is Dr. Berke living on? Would he use the phrase influenza epidemic if one out of every two American men and one out of every three American women were developing in his or her lifetime a potentially fatal strain of influenza? Does he perhaps believe that the dramatic increase in cancer among children has occurred because they've suddenly begun to eat badly or are going to the doctor more frequently? Can he have succumbed to the quaint notion offered by some members of the medical community that the sharp increases in cancer among Americans are occurring because people are living longer--in this case, because children are living longer?

"The increases [in the incidence of childhood cancer] are too rapid to reflect genetic changes, and better diagnostic detection is not a likely explanation," Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician who directs the division of environmental medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told the Times in September. (Dr. Landrigan is also senior adviser to the new office of children's health at the E.P.A.) "The strong probability exists that environmental factors are playing a role," Dr. Landrigan added.

According to the report in the Times, Landrigan and other experts "are inclined to examine the estimated 75,000 new synthetic chemicals introduced in the last half century, the emissions from cars, the pesticides in foods and in neighborhoods, the runoff in drinking water- the whole collection of chemicals out there, mostly untested for toxicity to humans, let alone for possible cancerous effects in children."

As a result of the recent data on childhood cancer, Carol M. Browner, the administrator of the E.P.A., is undertaking a new research program that will move beyond the chemical-by-chemical approach of the past and instead investigate a child's total cumulative risk from all exposure to toxic chemicals.

Dr. Lynn R. Goldman, the assistant administrator of the E.P.A. for pesticides and toxic substances, said that scientists lack even basic toxicity data for most of the Agency's list of 3,000 industrial chemicals produced in the highest volumes each year--many of them found in consumer products and in the workplace.

So who is Jerry H. Berke and why is he so anxious to convince the readers of The New England Journal of Medicine that (a) there is no cancer epidemic, and (b) it can't possibly be related to exposure to toxic chemicals and pesticides in the environment?

Dr. Berke is the Director of Medicine and Toxicology for W. R. Grace & Company, of New York City, one of the nation's largest chemical manufacturers.

W. R. Grace is the company whose renegade conduct is so powerfully described in the best-selling book "A Civil Action," which is now being made into a major motion picture starring John Travolta.

W. R. Grace is the company that was found responsible in a 1986 jury trial of contaminating drinking water supplies in Woburn, Massachusetts, by pouring trichloroethylene--a known chemical carcinogen--into an open ditch on company property that led directly to a brook.

W. R. Grace is the company that subsequently paid $8 million to settle claims brought by the families of seven Woburn children and one adult who developed leukemia after drinking water that was shown to be contaminated with the chemicals dumped by the company.

W. R. Grace is the company that pleaded guilty to two felony counts of lying to the EPA about the chemicals it had dumped into the ground in Woburn, and paid the maximum fine of $10,000 for having done so.

W. R. Grace, also a leading manufacturer of asbestos-containing building products, has been a defendant in several thousand asbestos property damage lawsuits brought by municipalities and building owners.

W. R. Grace is a founder of the Safe Buildings Alliance, which was organized to help defend Grace and co-defendant asbestos-products manufacturers in such litigation. In 1987, the United States District Court of Pennsylvania ruled that information disseminated by the Safe Buildings Alliance was "misleading as to its objectivity and neutrality" and that this information was used in an attempt to convince as many [building owners] as possible to "forgo the removal of asbestos from their buildings." The court further found that the Safe Buildings Alliance was formed with the intent of reducing the sponsors' liability for the hazards created by asbestos in buildings."

In a noteworthy trial conducted in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1986, a court fined W.R. Grace $4.8 million in compensatory damages and $2 million punitive damages for selling the City of Greenville asbestos containing fireproofing material to be used in the construction of its city hall even after Grace had removed asbestos from the same product for sale elsewhere in the country as a result of pressure from public health authorities who told Grace that the asbestos posed a major health hazard.

So much for W. R. Grace. Now, how about The New England Journal of Medicine?

On July 29, 1989, the Journal published an article (Vol. 320, No. 26) that was co-written by Brooke T. Mossman, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, and Dr. J. Bernard L. Gee, a professor of pulmonary medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. In their article, Mossman and Gee claimed incorrectly that chrysotile asbestos--a type of the mineral widely used in buildings in the United States--was less harmful to inhale than other types of asbestos, and that there was no need to spend public money to remove the huge quantities of asbestos (some 30million tons) that had been installed in buildings throughout the nation.

Nowhere in the article was there any mention of the fact that Mossman had served as a paid consultant on matters relating to asbestos to a major asbestos-products manufacturer, the Owens Corning Fiberglas Company, of Toledo, Ohio, or that Gee had not only been a paid consultant of Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., of Bridgeport, Connecticut--a major asbestos manufacturer and defendant in asbestos lawsuits--but had also testified in behalf of asbestos companies in lawsuits brought by disabled workers suffering from asbestos disease.

This omission seemed curious in light of the Journal's own publicly stated rules, which not only required authors to "disclose any commercial association that might pose a conflict of interest in connection with the submitted article," but also declared that "if the manuscript is accepted, the Editor will discuss with the authors how best to disclose the relevant information."

Six months later, in response to a letter to the editor from a physician who raised the question of their conflict of interest, Mossman and Gee revealed that they had, indeed, disclosed their outside activities to the Journal's editors. This revelation was followed by a two-sentence editor's note that spoke volumes about the Journal's attitude at that time toward conflict of interest. It read as follows: "Drs. Mossman and Gee did disclose to us their public, governmental, and legal activities before publication of their article. We kept their disclosure on file but chose not to publish it."

On January 17, 1991, The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter that was highly critical of the conclusions of Mossman and Gee regarding the hazard of inhaling chrysotile asbestos. This letter was signed by sixteen medical doctors (including three physicians from the Harvard School of Public Health), who represented 7 occupational health clinics across the nation, as well as by representatives of 22 other occupational health clinics in the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics.

As a result of the criticism leveled against the obvious conflict of interest on the part of Mossman and Gee, the Journal announced a significant change in policy: in the future, it would publish articles only by authors who had no financial stake in the subjects they wrote about.

Apparently, Dr. Marcia Angell, the executive editor of the Journal, together with her colleagues there, have decided to ignore this pledge. In 1996, they published an editorial endorsing an anti-obesity drug that was written by two researchers with obvious conflicts of interest. One of them was a paid consultant of the firm that manufactured the drug; the other was a paid consultant of companies that were marketing it.

An editorial in the Boston Sunday Globe on September 1, 1996, which ran under the headline "Malpractice at a medical journal?", declared that Angell and her staff "clearly should have known" about the conflict of interest of at least one of the researchers, who had disclosed in writing in an earlier article in the Journal that she was a consultant for the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the drug.

Now, coming full circle, we return to the review of Sandra Steingraber's book by Jerry H. Berke, M.D., M.P.H., who is allowed to describe himself in the Journal as living in Acton, Massachusetts, but not as being employed as Director of Medicine and Toxicology by W. R. Grace & Company.

Members of the Massachusetts Medical Society, who are the publishers of The New England Journal of Medicine, not to mention the Journal's 230,000 readers, may not only wish to inquire why Angell and her colleagues have chosen to keep editorial company with a writer who so ostentatiously carries the chemical industry's polluted water, but also why they have chosen to allow him to remain anonymous in their prestigious pages.

Paul Brodeur
North Truro, Massachusetts
Staff writer at The New Yorker between 1958 and 1996, author of three books about the occupational and environmental hazards of exposure to asbestos, the contents of which appeared originally as articles in The New Yorker.

Bill Ravanesi, MA, MPH
Newton, Massachusetts
Photojournalist, producer & editor of the documentary "Breath Taken: The Landscape & Biography of Asbestos".


  IV. Science Communication: An EPA committee and endocrine disruption.   TOP
By Peter deFur

EPA convened the Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee (EDSTAC) nearly two years ago, and asked more than 40 professionals, almost all of whom are research scientists, to join EDSTAC and advise EPA. EDSTAC was charged with providing advice on how to screen and test chemicals so that EPA can protect public health and the environment from the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. The members of the committee formed several work groups to accomplish the work of EDSTAC, one workgroup being dedicated to communications and outreach. The scientists, both bench level and policy makers, recognized that communicating scientific information to non-scientist members of the public, the media, Congress and legislatures, and regulatory agencies is a critical step in the advising process.

The Communications and Outreach (C/O) workgroup included about a dozen members from different constituencies, including government agencies, industry associations, non-profit environmental and health groups, academia and individual businesses. The workgroup was charged with providing expertise regarding three types of activities:. Ongoing public outreach while EDSTAC deliberated in 1996-98;. Addressing issues related to communicating the substantive information on which EDSTAC was advising EPA in the final report;. Outreach programs that EPA might consider when implementing a screening and testing program as per the requirements of federal law under which EDSTAC was convened.

The members of the workgroup were not restricted to members of EDSTAC, but drew on expertise in communications from the private and public sectors. Through numerous meetings of the workgroup, these representatives from multiple constituencies, deliberated and argued over how best to express unknowns, uncertainties, the interim and final results of laboratory assays, and what form of communications to use. Although the representatives from these constituencies did not always agree (and often disagreed vociferously) on the intent and meaning of communications, the C/O workgroup did agree on the need for clear and accurate communication.

One of the central and key issues in communications was whose agenda was served by communications. In the end, EDSTAC and EPA will likely reach the same point as the workgroup - many agendas will have to be served. And all are best served by the most open, accurate and complete communication possible.

The workgroup recognized that EPA will have multiple avenues available for communicating and reaching out to the public, and should use all these avenues: print media, electronic and in person. EPA will have to communicate on several levels as well with the lay public, communities who care deeply, scientific experts, regulatory agencies and industry. While the task of accomplishing these may seem daunting, the alternative - incomplete or inaccurate information flow is certainly a disservice to the environment and to society.

Peter deFur
Center for Environmental Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond VA
Peter deFur is a member of EDSTAC and co-chair of SEHN


  V. Science Communication: The role of the public - EDSTAC   TOP
By Davis Baltz

Has the EPA's Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Committee (EDSTAC) broken any new ground in the debate on how chemical substances (toxic or otherwise) threaten us? This FACA Committee is set to meet June 17-18, 1998 in Washington D.C. for the final time before its report is formally submitted to EPA on July 3.

I am a member of the public who is tracking EDSTAC's work from a public interest perspective. I have attended every EDSTAC plenary, and have reported on the committee's deliberations to individuals and organizations which work in the public's interest. In addition, I have recruited the public to attend plenary meetings; to provide pertinent public comments; and to educate their colleagues about endocrine disruption. As this process unfolded, I was recruited to join EDSTAC's Communication & Outreach Work Group as a member representing the public.

Certainly, one vital development that has occurred in the debate about endocrine disruptors during EDSTAC's eighteen months together is the growing awareness that "traditional" toxicology is by itself inadequate to study effects that can happen at exposures which are orders of magnitude lower than identified NOAEL's (no observed adverse effects levels).

It is enormously important that some members of industry, near the end of EDSTAC's time as a committee, are beginning to publicly acknowledge that low dose studies have been replicated. This has just taken place recently at a special workshop devoted to low dose issues at NIEHS in May 1998. The public nature of EDSTAC's process has added pressure on industry to recognize the emerging science. It will now be up to EPA to provide leadership and begin to screen and test chemicals at low doses from the very beginning of the program while a parallel research effort is mounted.

EPA's task will be greatly strengthened by the explicit mention in the EDSTAC report of the precautionary principle. The language exists in the current draft in the Committee's key description of an "endocrine disruptor." It appears that this is now consensus language, and its inclusion is an important tool that gives EPA backing to structure its screening and testing program with the intent to err on the side of greater precaution even in the absence of scientific certainty.

Because both the consequences and implications of endocrine disruption are so disturbingly compelling, EDSTAC has generated interest and concern from a wide range of the public. Significant public education has taken place just because EDSTAC's work has for the most part been a sanctioned public process.

Continued public pressure on EPA will now be crucial, and it will be essential that the results of EPA's screening and testing program be readily available to the public. Information creates power in impacted communities - the key thing to remember is everyone is exposed. WE are the impacted community.

I will always remember the EDSTAC public comment period in Houston in February 1997. All twenty commenters called attention to the health impacts of chemical contamination; pointed out the long history of industry's poor track record; noted that there is ongoing and pervasive chemical trespass into the privacy of our own bodies for which no one has granted permission; and urged EDSTAC to build more precaution into its recommendations that protect human health and the environment. At this particular plenary, comments were heard from ranchers, mothers, unions, the Sierra Club, veterans, the PTA, the Endometriosis Association, environmental organizations, and community based advocacy groups. Not a single person got up to defend industry, but I learned a lot about the Houston Ship Channel.

Davis Baltz
Commonweal
Bolinas, California



  VI. Letters to the Editor   TOP

Gordon Durnil
I enjoyed your December newsletter on the contemporary practice of science. I have come to believe that it might be the most serious barrier to environmental protection. When first subjected to the environmental community, I could easily buy into the idea that science should be value neutral. It made sense. But the scientists all thought it meant that they should be value neutral, so they avoided closure, failed to sell their conclusions, and even were willing to quickly abandon their findings if other scientists criticized their work as premature, etc. The result is that a scientist's work loses it's meaning.

In my experience "junk science" is what your antagonist says you have. Because of the antagonistic nature of today's scientists, the public tends to readily believe the claim of "junk science." Einstein's call for a "free and open" scientific query is what the public expects, but it is very difficult to find in contemporary environmental affairs. Today's scientists are like today's politicians - two sides at loggerheads without much hope for compromise or a "free and open" search for the truth.

Who will fund free and open research? Industry? Environmental organizations? Government? Academia? When we say only industrial science is "bad," or when industry says only environmentalist science is bad, we all lose credibility and delay environmental concerns among the public. Government science tends to follow the underlying beliefs of the particular agency funding it, and academic science usually follows the grant framework. The solution is not in calling the science of our adversaries bad, because there is no end to that silliness. That's how we got where we are. The solution is in teaching scientists as they were taught for centuries (until just a couple decades ago), moving away from the specializations and more to a general, or a broader view, practice of science.

As the public becomes more aware that environmental scientific truth can be based more on the politics of the various disciplines and practitioners of science, than it is on free and open queries, more and more environmental science will be disbelieved.

Marty Teitel writes:
While I always enjoy receiving The Networker, I especially appreciated the latest [December] issue, with its four articles on science. I think we could also talk about science as a religion, and especially, science as an epistemology.

The epistemology of science is pervasive in our society, but it is quite inadequate for some of the tasks it is given, and intolerant of other ways of knowing that do not fit the focused demands of the scientific method. So many of the important ways that people know things (for example, via intuition, art, dreams), are deleted by the epistemology of science from the tools available to people for inquiry.

Because of the hegemony of science over our ways of knowing, I think we live in an epistemologically impoverished age . . .

Anyway I didn't mean to start a sermon, only to say that I appreciate your thoughtful collection of essays.



  VII. News Briefs   TOP

Indiana GOP endorses Precautionary Principle
The following environmental plank was adopted as part of the 1998 Indiana Republican Party:
"Recognizing that protecting the environment is an important responsibility for all Americans, we believe:
  • since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Republicans encourage the exercise of precaution in activities that might have harmful effects on humans and the environment.

  • Indiana Republicans encourage the consideration of environmental laws that are efficient, effective, fair and reflect essential values of our society."

Thanks to Foundations
We at SEHN owe a special thanks to many people. But we would like to take this opportunity to thank the foundations and foundation officers who support our work. The recent Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was supported by:

  • C.S. Fund
  • The Johnson Foundation
  • W. Alton Jones Foundation
The C.S. Mott Foundation has just provided SEHN with general support for the next three years. We are most grateful.


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