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Daily News Blog

15
Dec

Int’l Group of Scientists Calls for Restraints on Conflicts of Interest in Publications and Regulation

(Beyond Pesticides, December 15, 2023) Drawing on a recent gathering of international scientists, a group of 34 scientists published a call for much stricter scrutiny of researchers’ conflicts of interest by agencies that regulate and register chemicals, with recommendations for the newly formed Intergovernmental Science Policy Panel. Writing in Environmental Science & Technology, the authors, led by Andreas Schäffer of Aachen University in Germany and Martin Scheringer of Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, cite an abundance of examples of chemical companies and their trade associations manufacturing doubt via an array of techniques, resulting in agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dropping certain provisions from rulemaking, ignoring scientific consensus, and keeping chemicals on the market—and in the environment—that many scientists say should be entirely banned. The authors produced the article in response to this webinar to discuss how to ensure that U.N. panels dealing with global crises get the most sound scientific advice conducted by the International Panel on Chemical Pollution.

Over the last four decades or so, the notion that conflicts of interest affect the validity of scientific research and professional opinions has been steadily eroded. Regulators wallow in compromised research, hamstrung by political pressure and pinched funding even as they face some 350,000 chemicals registered for use globally, only a tiny fraction of which have been tested for safety. Arguments in favor of enforcing rigorous conflict of interest (COI) policies in evaluation and registration of pesticides and other industrial chemicals have been repeatedly emphasized in scientific journals and the press, yet almost nothing has reduced the amount of industry influence over that process. In 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly decided to create a new advisory group called the Intergovernmental Science Policy Panel to provide expert advice to the U.N.’s existing intergovernmental panels on climate change and biodiversity.

The problem of industry interference applies to almost every industrial chemical, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastics, flame retardants, and asbestos. The tactics remain the same across fields, and are derived from the campaigns waged by climate deniers, tobacco companies, and fossil fuel companies as detailed in 2010 in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

One of the most obvious routes to affect policy, namely lobbying, cost chemical interests $65.9 million in 2022, according to an Open Secrets report. The American Chemistry Council’s pressure on legislators accounted for $19.8 million of that.

But more subtle industry influences also pervade the regulatory process. There are at least 24 strategies industry uses to disguise its conflicts of interest and further its economic goals, according to Rebecca Goldberg and Laura Vandenberg, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These include, the authors write, “‘revolving doors’ between a regulatory authority and the industry it is meant to regulate; reliance for safety data on unpublished industry documents while largely ignoring publications by independent scientists; and covert influence by the industry.” They also often threaten lawsuits against researchers whose work conflicts with their goals.

More types of industry manipulation were offered in 2019 by Xaver Baur, Colin Soskolne and Lisa Bero in Environmental Health:

Practices of corporate malfeasance include the orchestrated contamination of editorial boards of peer-reviewed scientific journals with industry apologists; interference with activities of national regulatory bodies and international review panels engaged in safeguarding occupational and public health; constructing roadblocks by capitalizing on uncertainty to undermine scientific consensus for much-needed government regulation of carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting and/or immunotoxic agents; promoting “causation” criteria that lack foundation and effectively block workers’ access to legal remedies for harms from occupational exposures resulting in morbidity and premature mortality; and, violating standards of professional conduct by seducing reputable scientists with financial incentives that make them beholden to corporate agendas.

And yet another perspective on the problem was offered by University of Notre Dame biologist Jason Rohr in a 2021 article:

The first tool is shaping science, which is the art of creating research to produce a desired outcome, often referred to as outcome-oriented research. When efforts to shape science fail, advocates will often attempt to hide science associated with unwelcome information or attack this science by launching illegitimate critiques in an effort to turn reliable science into “junk” [references omitted]. To discourage future damaging research, advocates will also harass or bully scientists who produce damaging research. Packaging science is the art of assembling an expert group to advance a favored outcome, whereas spinning science is the art of manipulating public perception about credible science.

For a painful example of the personal toll such practices take on individual scientists, read Herbert Needleman’s 1992 story of persecution by fossil fuel interests when he published research showing that inner-city children’s teeth contained high levels of lead. This was 14 years after lead was banned in paint, but just the beginning of the fight to further reduce children’s lead exposure, which has seen considerable success, but the lead industry was still lobbying against regulation by 1996, and today there are still nearly half a million U.S. children with elevated levels.

Beyond Pesticides has covered many aspects of industry influence at EPA, FDA, USDA and other regulatory agencies. See our 2017 commentary for more details. That year we also critiqued the nomination of Michael L. Dourson to be assistant administrator for chemical safety on the grounds that he had spent years “helping companies resist constraints on their use of potentially toxic compounds in consumer products.” Dourson founded a consultancy whose clients included Dow Chemical Company, Koch Industries, Inc. and Chevron Corporation. His research funders included the American Chemistry Council, which endorsed his EPA nomination. However, vigorous resistance from Beyond Pesticides and many other activist groups and unflattering press coverage led Dourson to withdraw his nomination. Thus the revolving door did not operate as intended this time.

Pesticide regulation is a major target for industry influence. For example, the herbicide atrazine, which EPA acknowledges is an endocrine disrupter, is very common in U.S drinking water. The E.U. banned it in 2004, but it remains the second most-used herbicide in the U.S. Atrazine’s manufacturer, Syngenta, notoriously attacked University of California Berkeley researcher Tyrone Hayes when he published results of atrazine’s hormonal effects on frogs. The company went so far as to hire a public relations flack to gin up rumors about Hayes’s mental health in order to discredit his work.

One of industry’s most appalling successes has been keeping asbestos on the market despite reams of evidence that it is extremely damaging to humans, causing mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other respiratory diseases, and it has been associated with ovarian, colorectal, stomach and pharyngeal cancers. In an especially scurrilous turn of events, from 2012 to 2016 an international corporate intelligence firm called K2 hired a former television producer to misrepresent himself as a crusading filmmaker eager to document the tragic effects of asbestos in India. The firm was working for asbestos interests. The so-called filmmaker, Robert Moore, ingratiated himself with anti-asbestos activists, recording phone calls and meetings and reporting to K2. The World Health Organization hired him to make a film called “Victims of Chrysotile Asbestos.” The whole story unraveled in court in 2018, but even this outrage did not overcome industry influence. EPA tried to ban asbestos in the U.S. in 1989 but caved to political pressure from the George H.W. Bush administration. It remains importable and usable in the U.S.

Not all biases create conflicts of interest. The Schäffer group distinguishes three different conditions that affect scientific validity, namely conflicts of interest, bias and just plain interest. The latter two are unavoidable, as they arise from professional obligations or participation in the work of activist groups advocating for public health. The authors cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s definition of bias as “a point of view or perspective” that “every expert holds” by virtue of his or her expertise. They support IPCC statement that “Holding a view that one believes to be correct, but that one does not stand to gain from personally, is not a conflict of interest.” In contrast, a true conflict derives from “a direct and material gain” in the form of money, political loyalties, or social connections. The conflicts that do the real damage are those associated with for-profit entities, their linked nonprofit trade groups, and the consultancies they hire. Money, prestige and power are tempting rewards.

Funding source has been identified numerous times as an indicator of industry influence. For example, a 2016 analysis of 39 studies of atrazine’s effects on reproduction found that only 9.1 percent of industry-funded studies showed evidence of harm, compared to 50 percent of non-industry sponsored studies.

In the late 1990s bisphenol A (BPA) was shown to disrupt prostate development in animals. After these results were successfully replicated, the American Plastics Council paid the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis to produce an argument that the evidence of endocrine disruption was very weak. A subsequent analysis of the BPA literature by Frederick vom Saal and Claude Hughes revealed that the 19 studies considered by Harvard were a small and cherry-picked fraction of the full range of studies available. Further, vom Saal and Hughes showed that out of 115 in vivo studies conducted by academic scientists, 94 found evidence of significant effects at low doses, yet none of the industry studies did so.

Clearly there has not been widespread progress on eliminating corporate and industrial interests’ influence on chemical policies, including pesticides. But the body of evidence is large and eloquent. The newly-formed Intergovernmental Science Policy Panel proposes that its own membership be subject to rigorous conflict of interest disclosure and that experts who have such conflicts should participate only as observers. The panel should also be monitored by an independent audit team to ensure that the panel’s work is “transparent, impartial, credible and scientifically robust” as specified by the United Nations resolution establishing the panel. If scientists who are free of industry tentacles join with environmental groups and the global public to push back against manipulation and misinformation, progress can be achieved.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources:

Conflicts of Interest in the Assessment of Chemicals, Waste, and Pollution
Andreas Schäffer, et al.

Environmental Science & Technology 2023 57 (48), 19066-19077
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.3c04213, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.3c04213

Why the U.S. Is Losing the Fight to Ban Toxic Chemicals, by Neil Bedi, Sharon Lerner and Kathleen McGrory, Dec. 14, 2022, https://www.propublica.org/article/toxic-chemicals-epa-regulation-failures

Conflict of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review
https://usrtk.org/pesticides/conflict-of-interest-concerns-cloud-meeting-as-international-experts-review-herbicide-risks/

IPCP. Webinar: Unwrapping Conflict of Interest in Chemicals and Waste Governance. 2023, January 26. https://www.ipcp.ch/activities/webinar-unwrapping-conflict-of-interest-in-chemicals-and-waste-governance

https://www.ipcp.ch/activities/webinar-unwrapping-conflict-of-interest-in-chemicals-and-waste-governance  RECORDING

Oreskes, N.; Conway, E. M. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

https://books.google.de/books?id=fpMh3nh3JI0C&pg=PP4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Goldberg, R. F.; Vandenberg, L. N. The science of spin: targeted strategies to manufacture doubt with detrimental effects on environmental and public health. Environ. Health 2021, 20 (1), 33 DOI: 10.1186/s12940-021-00723-0.

https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-021-00723-0

UNEP. Resolution adopted by the United Nations Environment Assembly on 2 March 2022 – Science-policy panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution. 2022.

https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/39944/SCIENCE-POLICY%20PANEL%20TO%20CONTRIBUTE%20FURTHER%20TO%20THE%20SOUND%20MANAGEMENT%20OF%20CHEMICALS%20AND%20WASTE%20AND%20TO%20PREVENT%20POLLUTION.%20English.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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