Science for Sale? Industry-funded Consumer Groups Stand Up for Chemicals

Is the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) dangerously alarmist? Does Consumer Reports magazine “use junk science to develop ‘sensational’ reports that advance the…extreme environmental positions” of its publisher, Consumers Union? Does second-hand smoke cause “no added risk” to people living or working with smokers? Are saccharin, formaldehyde insulation, pesticides, PCBs and bovine growth hormone perfectly safe? Yes indeed, if you take the word of certain industry-funded “consumer” watchdogs who crusade in the name of the people’s health and safety.

These groups, including the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), The Guest Choice Network (GCN), Consumer Alert and, among others, use the Internet, glossy magazines and a blizzard of newsletters and offshoots (“Consumer Distorts” and “CPSC Monitor” among them) to pound home the message that out-of-control regulators are relying on unproven science to restrict consumers’ freedom of choice.

“These groups are the beginnings of a new consumer movement,” claims John Doyle, GCN director of communications. GCN, with five full-time staff members in Washington, D.C., represents 30,000 restaurateurs and tavern owners seeking to protect their patrons’ right to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and cigars, eat fatty foods, and consume politically uncorrect delicacies from the boycott list—like swordfish, shunned by a growing number of restaurants because it has been chronically overfished. “The ‘Give Swordfish a Break’ campaign is an example of manufactured hysteria,” says Doyle, “and they want to extend it to 33 other species. It’s all part of making people uncomfortable or downright afraid of what they’re eating.” GCN material snipes at the usual targets, from “alar queen” Meryl Streep to Greenpeace.

New York-based ACSH, headed by the very vocal Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, is perhaps the most prominent GCN ally (though they don’t agree on smoking, which ACSH opposes). The council makes no bones about its corporate funding, which comes from, among many others, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Dow USA, General Mills and Exxon. Regular contributor General Electric apparently got its money’s worth when ACSH launched a spirited campaign denying the dangers posed by the company’s dumping of a million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. In 1992, Whelan moaned in an internal memo about the loss of Shell Oil money: “When one of the largest international petrochemical companies will not support ACSH, the great defender of petrochemical companies, one wonders who will.”

ACSH, which had assets of $1.8 million in 1998, made its first headlines by refuting the dangers of the potentially carcinogenic growth hormone Alar, which was widely sprayed on apples to keep them on the tree longer. According to Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, “ACSH got onto the Alar case like a bulldog in 1989 and hasn’t let go since.” Alar manufacturer Uniroyal was an early funder. Critics charge that Whelan invokes such hallowed names as the National Cancer Institute and the American Medical Association in an effort to absolve Alar, when neither group has taken an official position on it.

Jeff Stier, an ACSH press spokesman, denied that the group’s positions are influenced by corporate funding, which he characterized as comprising less than 50 percent of annual contributions. “The donations are made in accordance with a strict ‘no strings attached’ policy,” Stier says. “There’s no quid pro quo—we go where the science takes us.”

The science apparently took ACSH to a vigorous defense of phthalates, chemical softeners used in vinyl toys and medical products. One such plasticizer, diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), has been listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “probable human carcinogen.” Last summer, ACSH convened a “blue ribbon panel,” headed by former Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop, which concluded that phthalates are not harmful, and that removing the substances from medical devices would itself pose a health risk. The ACSH/Koop report, posted on the popular medical advice website, promptly drew fire from the activist group Health Care Without Harm. “It’s difficult to understand how the panel could have reviewed the hundreds of studies on leaching and health effects and still come out with such simple, soothing words of assurance,” says Charlotte Brody, the registered nurse who co-coordinates Health Care Without Harm. She charges that ACSH specializes in “science for sale.”

Another group that represents itself as crusading for scientific truth is the Washington-based Consumer Alert, founded in 1977. Although it describes its work as nonpartisan, Consumer Alert takes a pro-business, anti-environmental position on almost every issue. It denounces global warming as a myth, attacks the Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts, and denies the dangers of second-hand smoke. Most of its policy papers and editorials were written by Michael Fumento, a columnist who now serves as a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. Consumer Alert endorses the Cato Institute’s “Principles for Environmental Policy.” This proclamation, signed by a who’s who of “wise use” proponents, think-tank conservatives and “new consumerists” (including Whelan) calls for regulations to be wholly subordinate to private sector priorities. No environmental law could survive its seven principles.

Barbara Rippel, a Consumer Alert policy analyst, says it’s “unfair” to call Consumer Alert a tool of industry, though she admits it takes corporate money. “Our policies are based on scientific facts,” she says.

Another “crusader” along these lines is Steven J. Milloy, publisher of and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Milloy publishes “scientific” studies purporting to find dangerous levels of dioxin in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, as well as a lengthy parody of the groundbreaking book Our Stolen Future, about chemical endocrine disruption, which Milloy contends is the latest environmental plot to increase government research funding and activist groups’ foundation grants. In this, he concludes, the authors are in league with the publishers of Consumer Reports.

Protracted exposure to ACSH “studies” and Guest Choice Network’s slick handouts is sure to cause confusion in the casual consumer. Most people want to believe that the food supply is safe, and that everyday life doesn’t put us at risk from chemical exposure. But when a group’s “scientific” conclusions invariably conform to the political prejudices of its sponsors, as well as to the bottom line of its corporate funders, it’s wise to consider the source.