ACSH: Background and Staff
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) was founded in 1978 by Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Frederick Stare. Whelan’s early writing career included a freelance writing assignment for pharmaceutical company Pfizer criticizing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She also wrote for what she refers to as “consumer magazines,” but which would be more accurately described as “fashion magazines,” such as Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour. Her hyperbolically-titled books include “Panic in the Pantry” and “Toxic Terror.”
In 1997 Dr. Gilbert Ross joined ACSH as a staff assistant. Ross became Coordinator of Medical Projects for ACSH in February 1998, and subsequently was appointed Medical Director, then Executive Director in 1999. Although his biography on ACSH’s website does not mention it, Ross spent all of 1996 in a federal prison after having been sentenced to 46 months for his participation in a scheme to defraud New York’s Medicaid program. Ross became involved after responding to an ad in the New York Times promising “Very, very good $$.” The trial judge also ruled that Ross obstructed justice by committing perjury. Ross was barred by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for 10 years from participating in either the Medicare or Medicaid programs. The DHHS felt that he was “a highly untrustworthy individual” who had engaged in “medically indefensible” practices. Ross’s career has included defending the Wood Preservative Science Council against well-documented evidence that arsenic in pressure-treated wood poses a risk to human health and writing on behalf of the farmed salmon industry that the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in fish do not cause any health problems, including cancer. Frighteningly, by his own admission, Ross is now in charge of all scientific projects and publications, as well as personnel issues involving the scientific staff, at ACHS.
A 2001 survey showed that ACSH’s board of directors included anti-regulatory scientists like chairman A. Alan Moghissi, a former Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) official who had served on a panel to challenge the EPA's policy requiring asbestos removal from schools and other public buildings; Henry Miller, a former FDA official now at the conservative Hoover Institution, who campaigned on behalf of fat substitute Olestra; corporate public relations professionals Albert Nickel (from the firm Lyons Lavey Nickel Swift, whose motto is “We change perceptions”) and Lorraine Thelian (a senior partner at Ketchum Communications, which handles “environmental PR work” for Dow Chemical, the Aspirin Foundation of America, Bristol Myers Squibb, and the National Pharmaceutical Council).
Early funding for ACSH came from the right wing Scaife and John M Olin Foundations. In 1980, the group began accepting corporate funding. That same year, co-founder Stare wrote to tobacco giant Philip Morris seeking financial support: "We are a voice of scientific reason in a sea of pseudo science (sic), exaggeration and misnformation.” In fairness to ACSH, they have since spoken out regarding the dangers of smoking, however, they have irresponsibly promoted the use of smokeless tobacco for smoking cessation.
ACSH soon abandoned even the appearance of independent funding. In 1997, Whelan explained that she was already being called a "paid liar for industry," so she might as well go ahead and take industry money without restrictions.
Dr. Whelan claims that ACSH accepts funding from corporations “as long as no strings are attached.” However, in 1982, ACSH filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a lawsuit brought by the Formaldehyde Institute. The brief was paid for by Georgia-Pacific Co., a leading manufacturer of formaldehyde and a member of the Formaldehyde Institute. Georgia-Pacific paid its Washington law firm $40,000 to write the brief, which ACSH then submitted under its name. Formaldehyde has been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. EPA.
Despite claims that it is not influenced by its donors, ACSH conducted an “independent” study of artificial sweeteners, then sought funding from groups like the Calorie Control Council to disseminate the results. Monsanto and its subsidiaries, GD Searle and the Nutrasweet Company, gave ACSH $105,000 in 1992, making Monsanto ACSH’s “largest funder.” In a 1992 internal memo, Whelan bemoaned the loss of Shell Oil’s contribution: "When one of the largest international petrochemical companies will not support ACSH, the great defender of petrochemical companies, one wonders who will."
While ACSH stopped listing its donors in 1991, the list of donors from that year includes energy, chemical, pharmaceutical, automobile, agribusiness, and food and beverage giants, such as Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Union Carbide, ConAgra, and PepsiCo. According to the Capital Research Group, ACSH received $299,000 in corporate contributions in 1997, making it number 39 on the list of nonprofit public affairs organizations receiving corporate contributions. Between 2000 and 2003, ACSH received $90,000 from major polluter Exxon-Mobil. In 2003, Whelan stated, “About 40% of ACSH funding [comes] from private foundations, about 40% from corporations, and the rest of (sic) the sale of ACSH publications.” ACSH now claims to receive financial support from “about 300 different sources, including foundations, trade associations, corporations and individuals.”
In 2003, Whelan’s salary was $326,612; Whelan, Stier, and Ross, the three highest paid staff members, made a collective $638,186.
Corporate Front Groups
Corporate front groups are organizations whose agendas match those of corporate interests, and whose past and/or present ties show a strong pattern of financial and/or advisory links with corporations. Corporate front groups' pronouncements masquerade as science; they disseminate misinformation and outright lies which benefit corporate interests and serve as material for the public relations activities of those corporations, as well as encouraging further corporate financial support. Such groups, including ACSH, tend to promote a pro-business, conservative ideology.
It is also true that there are groups which take money from non-corporate special interests and employ myths and pseudoscience to spread fears and exaggerate risks about human health. This is common with respect to entities promoting so-called “naturopathic” and “homeopathic” remedies. In either case, the abuse and misuse of science is to be condemned.
There exists a large body of evidence, particularly with respect to the pharmaceutical industry, that corporate funding is associated with secrecy, publication bias, and trials designed to produce outcomes favorable to a company’s product. Pharmaceutical companies have been ordered to pay large, court-ordered fines for their malfeasance. Whelan has criticized Dr. Marcia Angell (former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine) for her accurate and well-documented criticisms of the industry.
Major medical journals have adopted policies designed to minimize biases inherent in industry-funded research, such as pre-trial registration of study design, full disclosure of funding sources, and minimization of conflicts of interest among editorial writers. While ACSH claims that at least some of its papers are peer-reviewed, who reviews which papers using what critera is unclear.
ACSH: Pseudoscience and Misinformation
ACSH, a non-profit institution, refers to itself as “a consumer education consortium” whose board includes “350 physicians, scientists and policy advisors – experts in a wide variety of fields.” ACSH claims that its “top priority is to help Americans distinguish between real and hypothetical health risks.” However, its mission could be described more appropriately as misinforming Americans about real and potential, yet serious, health risks through subverting sound science and obfuscating the truth. ACSH’s position on a variety of scientific and policy issues can be gleaned from a review of their website, which contains the following:
• Consistent attacks on the precautionary principle, a fundamental tenet of public health. ACSH articles attack the precautionary principle as “an anti-science and anti-technology phobia,” “fundamentally reactionary and elitist,” and “more on the order of theology [than science].” Another piece refers to the precautionary principle as being conceived by the United Nations, and describes the principle in the following words: “If the risk of harm cannot be ruled out, then the risky product or activity should not be permitted.” In fact, the precautionary principle can be defined as follows: When evidence points toward the potential of an activity to cause significant, widespread or irreparable harm to public health or the environment, options for avoiding that harm should be examined and pursued, even though the harm is not yet fully understood or proven. The principle involves four essential components: 1) give human and environmental health the benefit of doubt; 2) include appropriate public participation in the discussion; 3) gather scientific, technological and socioeconomic information; and 4) consider less risky alternatives.
• A piece minimizing the effects of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) on human health: “”Simply put, the role of ETS in the development of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease is uncertain and controversial.” ETS causes at least 38,000 deaths per year in the United States.
• The denial of many of the adverse neurological effects of lead exposure: “Claims of subtle neurobehavioral effects in children due to elevated blood lead level are not based on firm evidence.” Even low levels of lead can cause neurological and damage and developmental delay.
• The pronouncement that “there is…no compelling reason to believe that PCBs exert any biologically significant endocrine-modulating (or hormonal) effect in humans exposed to realistic environmental levels.” ACSH has also claimed that “there is insufficient evidence to conclude that environmental PCBs pose significant health problems through ‘endocrine disruption’ or estrogenic effects.” [Italics around endocrine disruption, a widely accepted scientific term, theirs]. These statements are at odds with numerous studies which led to the international treaty, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Environmental Pollutants.
• The statement that “the extent to which the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture contributes to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance is uncertain.” In fact, the World Health Organization has condemned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animals, because of their contribution to antibiotic-resistant, food-borne human infections. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has concluded that, in the United States, antimicrobial use in food animals is the dominant source of antibiotic resistance among food-borne pathogens.
• Dr Whelan’s criticism of the EPA’s claim that PCBs cause cancer, in which she calls the EPA’s decision to force General Electric (GE) “to begin removing traces of the chemicals from the Hudson River” one of the “top ten public health travesties of 2005.” With 78 Superfund sites nationwide (13 in New York), GE is America’s largest corporate polluter. Between 1947 and 1977, two of its capacitor manufacturing plants dumped 1.3 million pounds (“traces”?!) of PCBs into the Hudson River. PCBs cause cancer in laboratory animals, and are categorized as probable human carcinogens by the EPA; they also adversely affect the liver, kidney, nervous, and reproductive organs.
• A declaration that stories claiming that “mercury-laden tuna threatens the health of women and babies” and that “meat packaging process (sic) puts consumers at risk” were among the “biggest unfounded health scares of the year” in 2006. In fact, multiple studies have proven that the levels of mercury found in fish at the top of the ocean’s food chain, such as tuna, do pose a significant health risk for humans of all ages and genders. ACSH also claims that “questions remain regarding the health effects, if any, of low levels of methymercury in the diet, particularly among children, infants, and the developing fetus.” The fact that questions remain is true of any field of science, as all fields continually evolve with the addition of new studies. The statement “if any” is contradicted, again, by numerous studies. Furthermore, outbreaks of E. coli from hamburger, the rise of food-borne antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, and the discovery of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“Mad Cow Disease”) in the United States last year should be enough to give any consumer pause regarding the safety of meat processing and packaging in the US.
• A critique of the health benefits that could be achieved by removing trans-fatty acids from the diet. Dietary trans fatty acids are major contributors to cardiovascular disease and have no known health benefits. Whelan has made such outlandish statements as “There is no such thing as junk food,” and “There is insufficient evidence of a relationship between diet and any disease.”
• The statement that “dioxin exposures to human populations are without effect.” Again, this is contradicted by scientific studies. Whelan has claimed that the US government spends far too much on unproven health risks such as dioxin and pesticides because of the public's “unfounded fears of man-made chemicals and their perception of these chemicals as carcinogens.”
• The pronouncement that “for the vast majority of substances that are commonly referred to as ‘environmental chemicals’ there is not enough supportive scientific evidence to suggest that children are uniquely susceptible.” This is patently false for those environmental toxins (the term used by the majority of scientists as opposed to ACSH’s more benign-sounding term, which is favored by industry) which have been studied. In fact, fetuses and children are most vulnerable to environmental toxins for the following reasons: 1) they experience greater pound-for-pound exposure; 2) their blood brain barriers are immature and more porous than those of adults; 3) they possess lower levels of chemical binding proteins, allowing more chemicals to reach “target” organs; 4) their organs/organ systems are rapidly developing, and are thus more vulnerable to damage; 5) their systems to detoxify and excrete industrial chemicals are not fully developed; 6) their longer future life span allows more time for adverse effects to arise; and 7) while breastfeeding, they are literally at the top of the food chain, due to the concentration of fat soluble substances in breast milk.
• An open letter to policy makers stating, “The use of human volunteers in pesticide safety studies is vitally important.” The EPA has banned such research on pregnant women and children. Furthermore, this practice has been criticized widely by ethicists and policy makers.
• References to “mercury in tuna and other fish,…flame retardant traces found in blood and breast milk, PCBs in the Hudson River, diesel exhaust fumes from school busses, arsenic in drinking water, phthalates in medical devices and children’s toys,…and lead in blood” as “phony health scares.” This is irresponsible and unsupported by reams of scientific data. As just one example, the FDA is concerned enough about the risks of phthalates in medical devices that it recommended the substitution of non-phthalate-containing devices whenever possible, particularly in the care of male neonates, pregnant women who are carrying male fetuses, and peripubertal males.
• The statements “irradiated food is safe, wholesome and nutritious” and “no radioactive isotopes are involved” in the process of food irradiation, both of which are patently false.
ACSH and Global Warming
With respect to global warming, ACSH gave its 2005 Sound Science award to Michael Crichton. Crichton’s State of Fear conveys two messages, according to ACSH: 1) “The scientific evidence does not support global warming fears – or even the occurrence of a significant warming trend”; and 2) The ironic (and offensive) claim that the environmental movement and its well-paid leadership have jumped on the global warming bandwagon because that’s where the money is.” Dr. Whelan praises Crichton for confronting “the threat of pseudoscience…in this case, the belief that careless human activity (the burning of fossil fuels) has made the world too dangerously warm, causing death-dealing weather changes and human misery.” ACSH has referred to those who describe the serious health and environmental consequences of global warming and who call for fossil fuel restrictions as “doomsayers” and “fearmongers.”
ACSH: Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise
ACSH says that it “plays by the rules of science.” Its threat of litigation against Medscape for my comments is antithetical to the rules of science, which requires the free exchange of information and opinion in pursuit of the truth. ACSH also claims that it “[does not] make ad hominem attacks.” This is contradicted by postings on its website referring to members of the environmental movement as “toxic terrorists.” Furthermore, in a harangue published recently in the usually-unbiased Skeptical Inquirer, Whelan criticizes Dr. Barry Levy and citizen-activist Erin Brockovich as “individuals who…pursued self-serving financial opportunities through litigation.”
Levy, who has participated as an expert in asbestos-related litigation, is a past president of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and widely-respected author and educator, whose career has included work with theCDC, the US Agency for International Development, and the presidency of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize). For his many accomplishments, Levy won the APHA’s most prestigious award, the Sedgwick Medal.
Brokovich received the Harvard School of Public Health’s highest honor, the Julius Richmond Award for exposing Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG and E’s) pollution of California groundwater with chromium-6, which has been linked to stomach cancer.
Implications of Attacks on Science and Scientists for Public Health and the Scientific Enterprise
ACSH has a broad media presence and its web site attracts large numbers of individuals (“an average of 100,000 per month for 2005”). Dr. Whelan has been featured on NBC’s Today Show, CNN’s CNN Live, and CNBC’s Business Insiders. Editorials by Whelan and Ross have appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among other major publications. While most scientists should have no problem seeing through the pseudoscience and biases of ACSH after even a cursory check of their website and publications, those unfamiliar with ACSH may be influenced. Furthermore, the lay public could be seriously misled by their pronouncements, and that this could lead individuals to change their lifestyles and or purchasing habits as a result, which in turn could cause unnecessary morbidity and mortality.
ACSH and other groups have a track record of silencing scientists and activists through threats of litigation and SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Private Parties, lawsuits which lack merit and rarely make it to trial but which are designed to distract, intimidate, and deplete the scientific, legal, and financial resources of individuals and groups committed to public health).These tactics, as well as those employed commonly by the pharmaceutical industry (such as secrecy agreements and the failure to publish data unfavorable to their products) adversely affect the research, clinical, and public health work of respected scientists and health care professionals. Such groups’ faulty pronouncements influence our elected officials. Threats of litigation divert the valuable time of health care providers, editors, and legal departments away from their more productive missions of research, teaching, writing, and patient care. Such a diversion of time and intellectual resources constitutes scientific harassment, and is meant to silence those who advocate sound science. Such threats can have a chilling effect on scientists and health care advocates, who may decide that it is wiser to avoid conflict than publish content to which ACSH and other such groups would potentially object.
Today, US public science education curricula are increasingly corporate-sponsored. The current administration has altered the reports of scientific regulatory bodies and made appointments to scientific committees based more on political and religious ideology and on business connections than on academic credentials. In such an environment, it is critical for professional and lay publications to expose the workings of groups like ACSH, and for scientists to fight back against such groups’ harassment.
For the record, I receive no industry funding for my work.
1. Global Warming: A Public Health Crisis Demanding Immediate Action, available at http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/548985 and http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/549292. Registration is required, but is free. The entire piece will be published later this year by the World Affairs Journal. I write a regular column for Medscape, the largest on-line source of medical information, on social justice issues relevant to women’s health. While much of Medscape’s content is supported by the pharmaceutical industry, my columns have been free of industry support and all employ extensive citations to peer-reviewed scientific literature. Registration is required, but free, to access Medscape articles.
2. I had previously criticized ACSH (and other members of the anti-science corporatocracy) in a 2003 article on environmental degradation for the peer-reviewed journal, Social Science and Medicine. See Donohoe MT. Causes and health consequences of environmental degradation and social injustice. Soc Sci and Med 2003;56(3):573-587.
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54. For example, see http://www.acsh.org/healthissues/newsID.59/healthissue_detail.asp,
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*Martin T Donohoe, MD, FACP
Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Community Health
Portland State University
Chief Science Advisor, Campaign for Safe Food and Member, Board of Advisors
Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility
Senior Physician, Internal Medicine, Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center
[This article was first published as Donohoe MT. Corporate front groups and the abuse of science: the saga of the American Council on Science and Health. Z Magazine 2007 (October):42-6. Available at http://zmagsite.zmag.org/Oct2007/donohoe_print.html. This version includes references and an introduction describing my personal experience with ACSH.]
Corporate front groups and the abuse of science: The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH)By Martin Donohoe*, MD, FACP
Earlier this year, I wrote a two-part essay describing the health and environmental consequences of global warming for Medscape (a widely-read on-line medical journal), in which I described the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) as a corporate front group and criticized its selection of author Michael Crichton as recipient of its 2005 Sound Science Medal. Crichton, a physician whose recent book State of Fear questions the existence of human-caused global warming, had also received the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ journalism award.
On the day of publication, Medscape was contacted by attorney Jeff Stier, associate director of ACSH, who threatened litigation against Medscape if it did not remove my criticism from the article. Medscape’s editors and attorneys held meetings to discuss the issue, and I drafted a detailed response to ACSH’s threats which supported my criticism of the organization. To its credit, one week later Medscape published a revised version of the article which included an even more detailed critique of ACSH. Nevertheless, since many readers of on-line content read articles when they are first posted, they likely never saw the subsequent version. As such, ACSH was somewhat successful in quieting criticism of its organization.
Like many other organizations, ACSH uses threats and misinformation to suppress science, particularly when such science threatens the interests of those individuals and corporations which profit from activities that threaten human health and the environment. This article will discuss the threats to science and society posed by anti-science groups, focusing on ACSH.
ACSH: Background and Staff