Panic Attack: ACSH Fears Nothing but Fear Itself
This article was first published as "Panic Attack: ACSH Fears Nothing but Fear Itself" in PR Watch, Volume 5, No. 4, 4th quarter 1998. It is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.
Panic Attack: ACSH Fears Nothing but Fear Itself
Although the American Council on Science and Health styles itself as a "scientific" organization, it does not carry out any independent primary research. Instead, it specializes in generating media advisories that criticize or praise scientists depending on whether they agree with ACSH's philosophy. It has mastered the modern media sound byte, issuing a regular stream of news releases with catchy, quotable phrases responding to hot-button environmental issues.
USA Today cites ACSH as one of its most frequently-quoted sources for information on public health issues. ACSH itself carefully tabulates its media successes in a periodic "ACSH Media Update" provided to the corporations and other funders that support its work. A look at its media update for the period from July 1997 through January 1998 provides a revealing list of headlines:
- "A Global Scare: The Environmental Doomsday Machine is in High Gear" (one of six stories cited that dismisses dangers of global warming)
- "Irradiation Only Sure Method to Protect U.S. Food Supply"
- "Safe Meat: There Is a Better Way" (a Wall Street Journal editorial in which Whelan criticizes the USDA's August 1997 recall of E. coli contaminated beef from Hudson Foods)
- "Evidence Lacking that PCB Levels Harm Health"
- "The Fuzzy Science Behind New Clean-Air Rules"
- "Screaming About Breast Cancer"
- "Environmental Alarmists Can't Explain Progress in Public Health"
- "Eat Beef, America" and "Salad Days are Over"
- "Alcohol's Good Side: Moderate Use"
- "At Christmas Dinner, Let Us Be Thankful for Pesticides and Safe Food"
ACSH calls the U.S. ban on DDT one of the 20 worst unfounded health scares of the 20th century. It ridicules the risks that chemical "endocrine disruptors" pose to human health and fertility. In addition to pesticides and chemical food additives, it has defended asbestos, Agent Orange and nuclear power. Whelan's nutritional advice has also raised eyebrows among health experts, many of whom take exception to her claims that there is "no such thing as 'junk food,' " and that "There is insufficient evidence of a relationship between diet and any disease."
Whelan is the author of books titled Panic in the Pantry and Toxic Terror. An ACSH-published magazine called Priorities features articles with titles like "Toxic Terror on the Golf Course," which defends the use of pesticides and chemicals on golf courses; "The Media's War on Essential Chemicals"; "Inflated Fear on the Magazine Rack," which criticizes women's magazines for suggesting that there are health risks from silicone breast implants; and "The Consumer Rights Movement Exposed," which takes on Consumer's Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports), along with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America.
The notion that environmentalists and consumer groups are "terrorists" is a recurring theme in ACSH publications. For example, ACSH uses the term "mouse terrorism," which it defines as "the indiscriminate use of a single animal cancer test to determine human cancer risks," to dismiss the results of toxicology tests based on animal tests. "'Mouse terrorism' is becoming the single most influential research method used to control the availability of or even to ban useful pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and technologies," argued a 1995 ACSH newsletter. The same issue carried a brief review by Whelan of The Safe Shopper's Bible, a new book by David Steinman and Dr. Samuel Epstein. "Those specializing in terrorizing consumers about alleged toxins in food must be running out of ideas," Whelan declared.
Whelan used similar language in 1990, when she participated in a PR campaign by Ketchum Communications against Steinman's earlier book, Diet for a Poisoned Planet. (See related story in this issue.)
Fear not facts
In 1997, ACSH released a "special report" in pamphlet form titled "Facts Versus Fears: A Review of the 20 Greatest Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times." Compiled by ACSH Director of Media and Development Adam Lieberman, the list included DDT, cyclamates, the hormone DES in beef, the chemical contamination of Love Canal, dioxin at Times Beach, and asbestos. Lieberman's "study" devoted approximately one and a half pages to each "scare," including footnotes (which draw heavily on Whelan's writings).
A mass mailing of "Facts Versus Fears" to journalists generated countless uncritical stories in which reporters, ranging from Jane Brody of the New York Times to William Wineke of the Wisconsin State Journal, repeated Lieberman's conclusions or simply quoted them verbatim. Paul Harvey described it as "meticulously documented." An editorial in the Kentucky Enquirer used arguments from "Facts Versus Fears" to conclude that "we have plenty of reason and experience to be wary of overreacting to issues driven by ideology rather than sound science."
Not long after its publication, however, Lieberman himself underwent a political change of heart and published a confessional in Mother Jones in which he admitted that his own work was motivated primarily by conservative ideology. Moreover, he noted, ACSH itself was engaged in fear-mongering. "I was placed in the position of suggesting that the future of society was in jeopardy if consumers rejected the use of the fat substitute olestra or the milk-producing growth hormone rBST in cows," he stated.
Do Environmentalists Cause Malaria?
It is impossible to find a report anywhere in the mass media in which a journalist actually attempted to independently verify or critique the arguments in "Facts Versus Fears." If they had, they would have immediately noted serious problems.
Lieberman's verdict on DDT, for example, is a straight rehash of Whelan's arguments in Toxic Terror, in which she claims that environmentalist opposition to the pesticide is responsible for a worldwide resurgence of mosquito-borne malaria.
"The scientific evidence for banning DDT were purely based on mice studies. There's no evidence of human health problems," Lieberman added, citing "ACSH scientists and physicians" who claim that DDT has prevented hundreds of millions of malaria deaths.
Outside of ACSH, however, most scientists today credit the DDT ban for rescuing the bald eagle and other endangered species from the brink of extinction. "And there's no question that helping save them has helped save us," adds Louis Guillette, a University of Florida biologist. "Because if something is affecting wildlife, it's affecting humans, too." Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today lists DDT as a suspected carcinogen.
To build her case regarding malaria, Whelan points to the case of Sri Lanka, where use of DDT to control mosquitoes brought the number of malaria cases down from 1 million in 1955 to just 18 in 1963. Following the cessation of DDT use, the mosquitoes (and malaria) returned to their previous levels.
The U.S. ban on DDT, however, was not enacted until 1972, and spraying in Sri Lanka was discontinued in 1963 for budgetary reasons, not environmental concerns. In fact, DDT is still used today in many parts of the world to control malaria--including India, China, South America, Africa and Malaysia. "Widespread continuing usage of DDT is evident across a wide range of environmental samples (air, water, soil, sediment, fish, biota, foodstuffs, breast milk, blood serum, human fat, and more) that are routinely reported in scientific journals," notes Byron Bodo, a Canadian scientist and university professor who has worked extensively on water quality and other environmental issues.
One of the major problems with using pesticides, however, is that insect populations rapidly evolve to develop resistance to the chemicals. In fact, heavy use of DDT for agricultural purposes (as distinct from public health uses) is one of the major factors which are enabling the disease to make a comeback.
"At the very time malaria control efforts were splintering or collapsing, the agricultural use of DDT and its sister compounds was soaring. Almost overnight resistant mosquito populations appeared all over the world," notes author Laurie Garrett in her 1994 book, The Coming Plague. At about the same time, antibiotic-resistant strains of malaria began to emerge.
"To make matters worse, some Asian strains of the malaria parasite have developed resistance to available anti-malarial drugs," Bodo observes. "The combination of pesticide resistance in the transmission vector, the resistance of the parasite to anti-malarial drugs, and the virtual impossibility of mounting an effective quarantine in a modern world where 500 million+ people annually move relatively freely across borders, has knowledgeable public health officials fearful that a major global resurgence of malaria may be in the offing."
Ironically, writer Rachel Carson, whom Lieberman and Whelan blame for creating the "DDT scare," was one of the first people to warn that widespread agricultural use of insecticides could undermine efforts to control disease. "No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored," Carson wrote in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, before adding prophetically, "The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. . . . The insect enemy has been made stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting."
Is Vegetarianism an Eating Disorder?
Sometimes ACSH's analysis of public health issues is built around manipulations of emphasis rather than wholesale rejection of the facts. In a 1997 booklet titled "Vegetarianism," for example, ACSH staffer Kathleen Meister performs an artful dance around the facts which acknowledges the healthy potential of a meatless diet while simultaneously providing intellectual ammunition for ACSH's meat-industry patrons.
Of course, meat in moderate quantities can be part of a healthy diet, but the typical American diet today involves a much higher level of meat consumption than even ACSH can defend. Meister's study therefore ignores the consequences of the typical high-fat, low-fiber Western diet, while dramatizing hypothetical health risks to that small portion of the American population which not only avoids meat entirely but avoids dairy products and eggs as well. By Meister's own estimate, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population falls into this category.
"Many people choose a vegetarian diet because they believe that vegetarianism is associated with good health," Meister admits. "A substantial body of scientific literature supports this belief. Several large epidemiologic studies have indicated that vegetarians (primarily lacto- or lacto-ovo-vegetarians) have lower mortality rates and lower rates of chronic diseases than do meat eaters."
She then attempts, however, to explain away these studies by arguing that "Vegetarians may be healthy for reasons not related to their dietary choices. Many vegetarians are health conscious; they exercise regularly, maintain a desirable body weight, don't smoke, don't abuse illegal drugs, and don't abuse alcohol."
After quickly disposing of the evidence in favor of vegetarianism, Meister warms to the attack, warning about what she calls the "danger of extremism. . . . There have been tragic cases in which parents who were attracted to 'alternative' medical practices and philosophies have irreversibly damaged their children's health by feeding them inappropriate diets, relying on unproved health practices, and avoiding scientifically based medical care. Often, vegetarianism has been involved in such situations, usually in combination with other unconventional practices. . . . The result, in several reported cases, has been serious--even fatal--illness."
Moreover, Meister adds, these dangers may increase when kids go off to school: "Animal-rights groups and environmental organizations that discourage meat consumption are active on college campuses and even at some high schools. These organizations are often very aggressive in presenting their messages, and some young people are strongly attracted by their emotional appeals. . . . Some health professionals who treat young people with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia report that they are seeing increasing numbers of young vegetarians who avoid eating meat because they fear that it will make them fat."
The point of the whole exercise is clear from the headline of the news release that comes packaged with the pamphlet: "You don't have to give up meat to enjoy the benefits of a healthy diet."
Notwithstanding Meister's admission that a meatless diet can be healthy, the pamphlet provides a ready source of authoritative-sounding sound bytes that Mary Young of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association uses to warn the public against giving in to vegetarian impulses.
In response to a newspaper story about vegetarian actress Jennie Garth, for example, Young cites Meister's opinion that "some teen-age and college-age women who describe themselves as vegetarians may actually be practicing unhealthy forms of weight control or suffering from an eating disorder."