Sugar, Asbestos, Lead, Tobacco, Fossil Fuels and Plastics

October 12 2016

A lot of you probably saw recent news stories outlining how the sugar industry manipulated science in order to shift the blame to fat for causing the collective deterioration of America’s cardiovascular health. This is not as new or shocking as you might think. From lead to asbestos to cigarettes, over the 20th century, industry actors became skilled at the art of scientific manipulation. The goal of it all? To prevent or delay governmental regulation of their products.


The dangers of asbestos exposure were first documented in the 1930’s, and were immediately followed by industry efforts to co-opt the scientific establishment and control research agendas and publications (Wikeley 1992). Murray (1988), documents the strategies employed by the asbestos industry, noting that “the effect was to claim the mantle of science for those opposed to stricter control of asbestos, to tarnish proponents of stricter regulation with the stain of 'politics', and to accuse the scientists among them of being less than responsible in their claims about the danger of asbestos.”

Leaded gasoline and paint followed a similar course, with regulatory efforts spanning half a century. In this case, scientific and political manipulation contributed to the lead poisoning of an entire generation. In 1976, average lead levels in the blood of U.S. children under the age of six were found to be 16.5 μg/dL (Kovarik 2005). To put this in perspective, more recent studies have established that intellectual deficits begin to appear with blood lead levels of 7.5 μg/dL (Lanphear et al. 2005). The CPSC’s injury cost model determines that if a child between the ages of 0-4 is exposed to lead resulting in blood/lead levels of 2 µg/dL, ignoring all other developmental and physical consequences, they are expected to experience an average IQ loss of 1.9 points, reducing lifetime earnings potential by 3.3% (Miller & Bhattacharya 2013).

Skipping over the tobacco industry, today, these same manipulative strategies are being applied by both the chemical and fossil fuel industries. The fossil fuels industry has provided climate change deniers with a wealth of “scientific” evidence that they can use to justify their positions (Michaels 2008). Following in the footsteps of the asbestos industry, they have been wildly successful at manipulating the public by framing climate change as a political issue. A Pew research poll released this week showed that only 48% of Americans (and 15% of conservative Republicans) believed that climate change was caused by human activity (Funk & Kennedy 2016).

The next round of scientific manipulation has already begun by the chemical industry, who has mounted a massive effort to obfuscate the science and manipulate the public concerning the hazards associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), including BPA, phthalates, certain pesticides and flame retardants. Last month I finished a paper documenting the chemical industry’s strategy on EDCs, which was recently recommended for publication in the journal Science and Public Policy. If you want to dig deeper, check out the work of Stephane Horel who has done a good job of documenting the European side of things.

If anyone out there is working on these issues and would like to hire me or take me on as a PhD student, I recently finished my masters thesis (similar topic) and am looking for work while putting together applications. I’d be happy to forward you my CV.

(ran out of room for my citations, send me a message and I’ll forward them to you if you want them)

Brett Aho
Seattle / Leipzig / Copenhagen
brettcaho@gmail.com


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