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Corporate Science

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As government has been “downsized” in recent years, corporations have found opportunities to fund scientific research and education that the government used to fund. Will this give corporations the chance to influence scientific and medical opinions? Put another way, are scientific and medical experts able to take corporate money without subtly altering their scientific and medical views?

According to Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle in their eye-opening book, Toxic Deception, when chemical corporations paid for 43 scientific studies of four chemicals (atrazine, alachlor, perchloroethylene, and formaldehyde), 32 studies (74 percent) returned results favorable to the chemicals involved, five were ambivalent, and six (14 percent) were unfavorable.

When independent non-industry organizations – government agencies, universities, or medical/charitable organizations (such as the March of Dimes) – paid for 118 studies of the same four chemicals, only 27 of the studies (23 percent) gave results favorable to the chemicals involved, 20 were ambivalent, and 71 (60 percent) were unfavorable.

Corporations assert their influence over academia as well. In the field of weed science, for example, there are few independent scientists. The federal government has 75 weed scientists on staff, and the nation's universities have 180. The chemical corporations have 1,400. Furthermore, most of the university scientists accept chemical industry funding for their research. Rather than seeking less-dangerous alternatives, the vast majority conduct studies that assume the continued use of potentially carcinogenic chemicals. The chemical companies give at least a billion dollars to universities and foundations for agricultural research.

In recent years, breast cancer research has begun to focus somewhat more on causes, but until very recently, the emphasis has been on “lifestyle” factors – specifically obesity, alcohol, fat in the diet, and age at first pregnancy – and on early detection.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an example of such emphasis. Focused exclusively on early detection,
Breast Cancer Awareness Month was initiated and continues to be funded by one of the world's largest manufacturers of pesticides, plastics, pharmaceuticals and paper. The British conglomerate, Imperial Chemical Industries, now known as Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, earns $300 million annually from the sale of the carcinogenic herbicide, acetochlor, according to Robert N. Proctor's book, Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know And Don't Know About Cancer (Basic Books, 1995). Zeneca also earns $470 million per year marketing the world's bestselling cancer therapy drug, tamoxifen citrate. And it operates 11 cancer treatment centers.

Six years ago, 600,000 women wrote letters to Congress saying they wanted federal researchers to cast a wider net in the search for the causes of breast cancer.

Two years later, Science magazine titled a major story, “Search for a Killer: Focus Shifts from Fat to Hormones.” Researchers Devra Lee Davis and Leon Bradlow with Cornell University formally proposed a hypothesis, suggesting ways in which environmental estrogens, such as chlorine compounds, might cause breast cancer. The research world began to buzz with interesting new work, asking whether chemicals that mimic, or block, estrogens might contribute to breast cancer.

The Chemical Manufacturers Association and its subsidiary, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, went on the offensive to counter the Davis/Bradlow hypothesis, saying this line of research was a waste of time and taxpayers' money. They hired a public relations firm – Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin of Washington, DC, whose long-term strategy is to characterize the “phase out chlorine” position as “a rejection of accepted scientific method.”

Within an ethical framework, chemical risk assessors could help society examine various alternatives. Without such a framework, chemical risk assessment is reduced to a means for “managing” the anger, fear, and frustration of a citizenry that suspects it is being poisoned.


Peter Montague is the editor of Rachel's Health & Environment Weekly. See Resource Guide on page 34 for information on subscribing to this valuable publication.

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