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New Lows In The War On Science — But This Time Science Wins One

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"New Lows In The War On Science — But This Time Science Wins One"

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by Tina Swanson, reposted from NRDC’s Switchboard

Imagine you’re sick and you go to the hospital seeking diagnosis and treatment from a doctor.  After taking your history, giving you a thorough examination and doing a huge number of expensive tests, your doctor determines that you are being sickened by pollution from an industrial complex, A**e Industries, located near to your home. But then, just as she is coming to tell you her results, your doctor is arrested, charged with attempting to report her diagnosis to you before she provides it, along with all her notes and test results, to A**e Industries.  A**e Industries also threatens to sue the hospital if they allow your doctor to reveal her results to you.  Sound outrageous or farfetched?  Then wait till you hear this…..

Earlier this year, lawyers representing the Mining Awareness Resource Group, which works on behalf of the mining industry, sent letters to a number of scientific journals, including Occupational and Environmental Medicine and The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, suggesting they “reconsider” publication of articles submitted by the National Cancer Institute or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study in light of a court order issued by a U.S. federal district court.

This legal threat directed at peer-reviewed scientific journals, an unprecedented new low in the war on science, was just the most recent effort by the mining industry to derail and delay this $11.5 million publicly-funded study of the relationship between exposure to high levels of diesel exhaust that occur in and around mines and lung cancer.  It began in mid-1990s, when the mining industry sued the Department of Health and Human Services, demanding industry representatives be included on scientific oversight committees for the study.

Congress got into the act in 1999, demanding to “review and approve” study results prior to publication, an overreach that a federal judge rejected, instead allowing the industry and the Congressional committee a 90-day pre-publication review.  Legal and procedural skirmishes still continue over the committee’s and the mining industry’s demands for ever more documents.  For a more complete description of this disturbing story, see these articles hereherehere and here.

The diesel study, launched 20 years ago, builds on numerous other studies that have suggested a link between diesel exhaust (which contains sooty particulate matter as well as hundreds of toxic chemicals) and lung cancer, including research that led California to list diesel exhaust as a known carcinogen more than a decade ago and this one on railroad workers published in 2004.  The diesel study was also expected to provide valuable new information to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and arm of the World Health Organization, when it officially reassesses the science linking diesel exhaust to cancer this coming June.

According to Dr. Kyle Steenland, professor at Emory University’s School of Public Health, the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study is a “state of the art evaluation of diesel” that should provide “very important … information about whether diesel is a lung carcinogen.”  Dr. Steenland expressed the frustration of many scientists and public health officials when he said “It’s high time that the public and the scientific community get to see the results of this study.”

Last month, when I began researching and writing this post, that was where this story of science interference and suppression ended.  But last Friday the good news came: results of the study had been published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.  The journal article and accompanying editorial are publicly available online.  Bottom line: the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study showed that regular exposure to high concentrations of diesel exhaust significantly increases the likelihood of dying of lung cancer, with cancer rates as much as three- to sevenfold higher for the most heavily exposed miners compared to miners exposed to lower levels.  My colleague, Diane Bailey, provides a more complete description of the study’s results in her latest blog.

This case of stalling and suppressing scientific results is not an isolated incident—books have been written about this kind of stuff and the news is full of similar stories.[1] But many of us think that it’s getting worse and that it represents a growing threat to our health, our democracy and our planet.

Last month, Dr. Nina Federoff, outgoing president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science expressed her profound concern that the anti-science movement was spreading and that we were “sliding back into a dark era.”  What makes the diesel study story such a compelling and illuminating example of the war on science isn’t just that the assailants are so clearly identified (the mining industry) and their objective is so cynical and self-serving (preventing disclosure of facts about the effects of working conditions on the health of their own employees).  It is that it has escalated the war on science from distortion and denial to the use of legal threats to prevent publication of peer reviewed scientific results (which, in this case, the industry almost certainly already knew) and manipulation of Congress to support this kind of interference.

Science, like a medical diagnosis, is the use of observation, measurement and experimentation to answer questions and establish objective facts.  By design and application, it is transparent, characterized by the free flow and exchange of ideas, information and, because we scientists can’t help ourselves, more questions.  Neither scientists nor doctors always agree with each other—but it is the open and creative yet informed discussion that makes science such a powerful tool for learning, problem-solving and progress.

So the next time you hear a story like this, evaluate the background, evidence and the players.  And then ask yourself whether it makes sense to attack science—the messenger and the message—rather than the problem that science seeks to understand.

Tina Swanson is Director of the Science Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This piece was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard.

[1] To cite just two recently published examples, read Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, or Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, by Shawn Lawrence Otto, for an excellent analysis and description of this problem.

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9 Responses to New Lows In The War On Science — But This Time Science Wins One

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    All extractive industries in this country are very poorly regulated. It’s not good enough to be better than China and Russia, whose EPA equivalents have no teeth.

    There is no reason why logging in this country can’t follow the same rules as those in Japan and Switzerland, or that mining doesn’t adhere to the same safety standards seen in Sweden and New Zealand. As for our fossil fuel companies- prominent in the mining industry trade association- they pretty much do whatever the hell they want, including refusing to divulge fracking chemicals and not being financially punished for spills and mine explosions.

    This is an inner failure, and stems from the sharp decline in this country that began under Reagan, in response to visionary environmental legislation of the 1970′s. The counter revolution’s success stemmed from bribery of political office seekers and relentless pressure on media outlets.

    We need show trials of people like Blankenship of Massey Coal. Instead, the legal system is going after the site manager
    of the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 miners died. Blankenship, Boyce, Tillerson, and Koch are essentially gangsters. They need to be treated as such.

  2. Leif says:

    Take the profits out of pollution!

  3. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    There is no reason why logging in this country can’t follow the same rules as those in Japan and Switzerland, or that mining doesn’t adhere to the same safety standards seen in Sweden and New Zealand.

    Wish they would, but logging is a powerful group too. A small quarry that has been around for over 20 years wants to expand a bit. They’re required to submit a full Environmental Assessment: monitor songbirds, search for species at risk, have plans in place for mitigation, traffic analysis, water course protection and on and on and on–which it probably should do.

    However, a logging company can (and a few years earlier did) logged the forest around it, and they didn’t have to do a single thing to demonstrate they weren’t putting species at risk (wood turtle, Blanding’s turtle) in further jeopardy.

    Same thing up north. A power line, even mining interests, must complete an assessment. Yet half of the area the power line is going through has been unsustainably logged (the mill had to shut down). I’ve not seen such a mess before…no decent-sized forest, just scrubby stunted tangled mess of trees, open fields, and very little diversity in wildlife compared to unlogged areas further north. But do you think the logging companies had to perform any type of assessment before they trashed an enormous area?

    On the “plus” side, since the area can’t support a logging industry thanks to previous stupidity and greed, they’re mulching all that scrub and small trees into biomass. Sort of like a local mill that had also wiped out the ‘good’ wood, but instead of looking at what they had done wrong and bringing good wood back, they used funding to convert the mill so it could handle ‘bad’ wood so now they’re going out there and wiping out whole areas of white birch (which were once areas of white pine/hemlock or mature stands of hardwoods like sugar maples). Then they boast about how they’re being good stewards of the environment by using poor wood (because the idiots wiped out the desirable wood, didn’t let it grow back, and now it is either take the stuff you didn’t want or shut the mill down and put half the town out of work).

    Sorry for the rant. The double-standard here sets me off, esp. when the beneficiaries of that double-standard are responsible for frigging things up so badly that a prominent forestry scientist said we should just burn the area to the ground and start from scratch.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Thanks for chipping in on this, Daniel. Yeah, all the timber companies have to do is claim that they are going to replant and they get to do anything. If it never grows back, or does so partially, nobody gets punished.

      The oil companies learned a lot from timber industry PR, too. Lie enough times over and over again, and people start to believe you. This includes timber industry PR about carbon. For a good summary of the current state of forest carbon science, google Oregon Wild Forest Carbon (great slideshow), or read my stuff at http://www.tinyurl.com/yc8ncuq,
      http://www.tinyurl.com/ycxfsqu

  4. climatehawk1 says:

    Great post, and good news. Minor nit: it’s “publicly,” not “publically.” Since great care has clearly been taken on grammar here, that should be fixed.

  5. NJP1 says:

    I seem to recall the same kind of medical cover up when workers died through carbon monoxide poisoning while working in the tunnels on the Hoover dam in the 30s

  6. Dory says:

    Fracking Industry Colludes With Pennsylvania Legislature to Create Dangerous New Law

    The fracking industry has written a bill that gives itself legal permission to poison Pennsylvanians-and keeps doctors who treat them once they’re poisoned from telling anyone else what poisoned them. The bill also essentially permits all gas drilling and processing activities anywhere, including in residential areas.

    http://www.truth-out.org/fracking-industry-colludes-pennsylvania-legislature-dangerous-new-laws-head-governors-desk/132923015