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 . “
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.