A Veneer of Legitimate Science Crafted To Advance Questionable Claims

A Veneer of Legitimate Science Crafted To Advance Questionable Claims

I was doing research on the effect of a chemical being broadly used in industry for an article, when I stumbled on an online piece at CNN.com. The piece was titled “A Study estimates 15,000 cancer cases could stem from chemicals in California tap water” reported by Nadia Kounang, CNN in an Update @ 9:23 AM ET, Tue April 30, 2019. (Why was it necessary to update this article?)

I do a fair amount of work that involves scientific journals and I have a background in statistics and this piece struck me as odd. Upon reading the article it noted that Californians could see an increase in cancers state wide of 15,000 through the period of a lifetime(??). It bothered me because in a state with a population of 45,000,000 over a period of roughly 75 years the incidence is basically insignificant and falls below any threshold of even a research project with careful controls.

The piece was purportedly from researchers at the advocacy group Environmental Working Group out of Washington D.C. and was published in the journal Environmental Health. The first difficulty I had was locating the publication and the article. Eventually I located the journal which was one of supposedly two to three hundred scientific journals published by BMC a part of Springer Nature. Their mission from the website states they are

A pioneer of open access publishing, BMC has an evolving portfolio of high quality peer-reviewed journals including broad interest titles such as BMC Biology and BMC Medicine, specialist journals such as Malaria Journal and Microbiome, and the BMC Series.

The article in question was published in April 2019 and was an attempt to apply methods used in air quality and risks to drinking water. The paper is reasonably short and includes the two following statements.

“Cumulative risk assessment for drinking water has lagged behind similar methodologies already standard in air quality evaluations. In our estimate, the slow adoption of cumulative methods in drinking water assessments is at least partly due to the variety of health outcomes caused by drinking water contaminants. While acknowledging the scientific challenges of assessing the impacts of co-occurring chemicals on multiple body systems, we believe that the drinking water field can start with the application of existing cumulative risk methodologies established for air quality.”

“The EPA’s technical support materials for the National Air Toxics Assessment note that the true value of the cumulative risk is not known and that the actual risks could be lower than predicted [2]. “

So it seems they are applying air quality evaluation standards to water while admitting that cumulative substances in air cannot be evaluated for health risks?

What they did come up with is one hell of a headline and a remarkable amount of media coverage. It seems they got mentioned in The Washington Post and The New York Times and probably a number of other news outlets.

In browsing other of BMC’s “scientific” journals I found a number of other shocking headlines with one particular organization repeatedly getting published. It was the Ramazzini Institute of Italy. It seems they have announced findings like “Splenda Causes Cancer”, “Cellphone radiation Causes Brain Tumors”, “New Results On Glyphosate Danger” It seems that The Ramazzini Institute research is widely distrusted by the Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority, and the Environmental Protection Agency as well as a virtual who’s who of modern science.

I am saddened by this afternoon’s walk through borderline research, questionable institutions and scientific publications. They seem to form a large network of radical organizations, lobbying groups, litigation law firms and pseudo scientific institutes that have been financed by millions in donations, litigation proceeds and well-intentioned private and government grants. They now represent a vicious conspiracy that plants misleading information in the media to stir up public fears and gain support. They use the fruits of this misrepresentation to legally attack businesses and win or extort hundreds of millions of dollars from business while at the same time making a number of participants rich.

I have always been puzzled by why bad scientific arguments seem to prevail in areas from breast implants, to talcum powder, to Roundup but I am beginning to get the picture.

Secondhand Smoke

The Case Against Secondhand Smoke

By Steven Milloy
June 04, 2001

World No-Tobacco Day 2001 was yesterday. Sponsored by the World Health Organization, the theme was secondhand smoke. The event’s poster featured “Secondhand Smoke Kills” emblazoned over a photo of the Marlboro Man riding into the sunset.

WHO proclaimed, “Second-hand smoke is a real and significant threat to public health. Supported by two decades of evidence, the scientific community now agrees that there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke… The evidence is in, let is act on it.”

That’s quite an ironic statement, though. It appears the WHO doesn’t even put much faith in its own research on secondhand smoke.

The WHO’s World No-Tobacco day web site lists, “Comprehensive Reports on Passive Smoking by Authoritative Scientific Bodies.” The listed reports include the 1986 reports from the Surgeon General and National Research Council, the 1993 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and two late-1990s reports from the California EPA.

For those unfamiliar with the reports, the list appears formidable. Otherwise, it’s just disingenuous.

The 1986 reports by the NRC and Surgeon General concluded secondhand smoke was a risk factor for lung cancer. But of the 13 studies reviewed, 7 reported no link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Given the statistical nature of these studies, this split in results is precisely what one would expect if no true link existed.

Neither report produced much progress for anti-smoking activists. So they convinced the EPA to pick up the gauntlet.

Thirty-three studies on secondhand smoke had been completed by 1993. More than 80 percent of the studies reported no association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, including the largest of the studies. The EPA reviewed 31 studies – inexplicably omitting two studies reporting no association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer – and estimated secondhand smoke caused 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually.
Under the stewardship of the anti-tobacco Clinton administration, secondhand smoke hysteria caught fire.

Observing the “success” of the EPA report, the California EPA adopted by reference the EPA’s conclusions into the state agency’s own report. Little original or independent analysis went into the Cal-EPA report.
Just when it seemed anti-smoking activists finally succeeded in producing scientific reports establishing secondhand smoke as a health risk, a federal judge overturned the EPA report in 1998. He ruled the EPA cheated on the science.

Later in 1998, the WHO published the largest study ever done on secondhand smoke and lung cancer. The study reported no statistically significant association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Oops.
Now let’s go back to the WHO’s list of reports on its web page.
The 1986 reports don’t carry any weight. That’s why the EPA did a new report. But the EPA report was in all important respects trashed by a federal judge – by implication, a fate also deserved of the California report that relied on the EPA report.

And the WHO omitted its own report from the list of “comprehensive reports” by “authoritative scientific bodies” no doubt because the “wrong” answer was reported.

If secondhand smoke really increases lung cancer risk, why all the smoke-and-mirrors?

Of course, lung cancer is not the only health alarm sounded about secondhand smoke. The science on these issues is also not as it’s hyped.
The WHO claims secondhand smoke causes between 35,000 to 62,000 deaths from heart disease annually in the U.S. But the WHO omits mention of an important New England Journal of Medicine editorial on the controversy.

University of Chicago Hospital health studies chairman John Bailar – hardly sympathetic to the tobacco industry – dismissed the link between secondhand smoke and heart disease, citing the poor quality of study data and evident researcher bias.

WHO claims, “Second-hand smoke also causes and aggravates asthma and other breathing problems, particularly in children. It is also an important cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).”

But researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examining data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported in January’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine there was no association between secondhand smoke and asthma among 5,400 children studied aged 4 to 16 years of age.

No one knows what causes SIDS. Just this week, Wake Forest University researchers reported SIDS may be related to a genetic deficiency. Reportedly, the absence of a particular muscle enzyme allows fatty acid products to accumulate, producing a toxic effect causing heart arrhythmias and respiratory arrest.

Anti-smoking activists have yet to explain where were all the childhood asthma and SIDS cases in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when smoking indoors was commonplace and adult smoking rates were much higher than they are now.

Secondhand smoke is annoying to many nonsmokers. That is the essence of the controversy and where the debate should lie – the rights of smokers to smoke in public places versus the rights of nonsmokers to be free of tobacco smoke.

In debates over individual liberties, fabricated and propagandized science should play no role.