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Moench: 'Junk' science that isn't

Published August 31, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I think most of us would give lip service to allowing science, not ideology, to sit in the driver's seat of America's future. But that raises the question, who will judge the science?

The Tribune's front-page story on Tuesday ("Two Utahns have stake in pollution health data fight") Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Brigham Young University professor Arden Pope as central figures in the national battle over the science behind the Environmental Protection Agency's clean-air standards. History provides an important perspective on what happens when we allow science to be co-opted, judged or smothered by ideology or moneyed special interests. Stewart vs. Pope should be viewed in that context.

The science on the broad-based health disaster that is tobacco was well established by the 1940s. But by allowing Big Tobacco to create a smoke screen that obscured the science, tobacco regulations were delayed for four decades. The American Cancer Society estimates 100 million people were killed by tobacco in the 20th century, and 1 billion people worldwide will die in the 21st century.

The history of the lead industry reveals a similar travesty. Medical science established the toxicity of lead in the early 1900s. For over 50 years, the Ethyl Corp., General Motors, Standard Oil, DuPont, the American Petroleum Institute and complicit politicians obscured, obstructed and lied about the mounting evidence of a public health catastrophe from tetraethyl lead, aggressively marketing it worldwide and fighting every attempt to regulate or curtail its use. Because of lead's potent neurotoxicity, those of us who grew up in the era of leaded gasoline and paint lost about six IQ points — one reason why our children are smarter than we are.

The asbestos industry followed the same playbook. In fact, in hundreds of cases, when corporate profits from dangerous chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and defective consumer products (think DDT, Fen-Phen, Agent Orange, Thalidomide, PCBs, Corvairs) faced challenges by scientists who discovered those products are not safe, the scientists were attacked as "frauds, scoundrels, criminals," and their research was labeled "secret, junk science."

The most profitable corporations in history — the fossil-fuel industry — are now following the same game plan. With the help of their bought-and-paid-for politicians, they are attacking the science and the scientists. Stewart vs. Pope is just another chapter in the same book.

Stewart promotes his EPA attack as necessary public "transparency." If so, below are questions his constituents should ask at his town hall meeting on Wednesday.

1. Since Pope's landmark research, thousands of studies from around the world have come to similar conclusions. Will they all need re-evaluation? Does Stewart have the medical expertise to do that himself? If not, where will the expertise come from to redo decades of research to his satisfaction?

2. If the EPA has used "junk" science for a political agenda, what does he claim is the agenda of the American Medical Association, American Thoracic Society, American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Public Health Association, National Association of Local Boards of Health, EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the World Health Organization — all of whom have called for even stricter pollution standards than the EPA?

3. Is he as interested in the raw data behind the EPA's decisions to not test for fracking contamination of water, not to regulate coal ash, not to monitor Fukushima radioactive fallout, not to suspend brain-toxic and bee-killing pesticides, or the thousands of other issues where public health groups believe the EPA has capitulated to corporate influence?

Yes, Congressman Stewart, at your town hall meeting Sept. 4, the public will be interested in transparency. Some of us "junk" physicians would like to discuss "junk" science vs. "junk" congressmen.

Brian Moench is an anesthesiologist, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of Union of Concerned Scientists.