In late November 1997, Sandra Steingraber was on tour promoting her new book, "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks At Cancer and the Environment."
In Austin, Texas, she learned of a scathing review of her book that had just been published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
The reviewer, identified by the Journal only as Dr. Jerry Berke of Ashton, Massachusetts, rips the book as the "biased work" of an environmentalist who uses "oversights and simplifications" to support her arguments.
The Journal's was the first negative review of her book.
In Living Downstream, Steingraber puts forth a powerful argument that we are in the midst of a cancer epidemic, that toxic chemicals and pesticides are a primary cause of this epidemic, and that while we can do little about genetic causes of cancer, there is much we can do to rid ourselves of man-made carcinogens in the environment.
Steingraber soon learned that the Dr. Jerry Berke who reviewed her book was in fact director of toxicology at W.R. Grace & Co., one of the largest chemical companies in the United States.
Someone at the New England Journal didn't realize that Grace was a chemical company -- they thought it was a hospital company.
"We should have recognized that W.R. Grace was a conflict of interest, but unfortunately the person who handled it didn't recognize that," the journal's editor in chief, Jerome P. Kassirer told the Boston Globe.
As former New Yorker staff writer Paul Brodeur and a public health specialist, Bill Ravanesi, point out, however, it would be difficult for anyone not to recognize Grace for what it is: a company with a long track record of chemical pollution and crime, whose chemical pollution was captured in a best selling book, "A Civil Action," soon to be a major motion picture starring John Travolta.
The same W.R. Grace that paid $8 million to settle claims brought by the families of seven Woburn, Massachusetts children and one adult who developed leukemia after drinking water that was shown to be contaminated with chemicals dumped by the company.
The same W.R. Grace that was convicted of two felony counts of lying to the federal officials about its activities in Woburn.
The W.R. Grace fiasco is the latest in a disturbing pattern, highlighted by Brodeur and Ravanesi, of the New England Journal ignoring corporate conflicts.
In 1996, the Journal ran an editorial endorsing an anti-obesity drug. The article was written by two consultants -- one a consultant of the manufacturer of the drug and the other a consultant to the marketer of the drug. The Journal failed to alert its readers to the conflict.
In a recent editorial for the Journal, Stephen Safe, a researcher at Texas A&M University, argues that environmental estrogens do not cause breast cancer. Safe has received grants of up to $150,000 over the last three years -- about 20 percent of his budget -- from the Chemical Manufacturers Association. The Chemical Manufacturers Association represents companies that produce those estrogens.
Safe also attacks environmentalists and "chemophobia," which he defines as "the unreasonable fear of chemicals."
Safe told the Boston Globe that he "felt a little twinge" about the potential for a conflict of interest when writing the editorial, "but it was not much of a twinge."
"There's hardly any life scientist in the country who hasn't had funding from the industry," Safe said.
The problem at the Journal mirrors a broader problem -- big corporate money is corrupting all aspects of society and few see the need to disclose the corrupting influence.
At least in the old days, when the Chemical Manufacturers Association, or the American Petroleum Institute spoke, the public would know how to discount the message.
Now, from scientific journals to letters to the editor in mainstream newspapers, corporations are seeking to hide their identities behind corporate front groups, or corporate PR flaks that don't disclose their affiliations and list only their home addresses.
It's an epidemic with a ready cure -- disclosure. Every time Stephen Safe writes an editorial for the Journal, he should list the money he gets from industry. Every time Jerry Berke writes a book review, he should tell us that he works for W.R. Grace. Corporate front groups should reveal their corporate sponsors.
Only with disclosure will we have a chance to rid ourselves of this epidemic of corruption. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
COPYRIGHT © RUSSELL MOKHIBER AND ROBERT WEISSMAN
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