IN INDUSTRY'S HIP POCKET? The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) The Group with an Ax to Grind
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy are
co-authors of Toxic Sludge is Good For You.
For the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), the "phthalate
issue" (pronounced "THAL ate") is just another "scare as usual" - another
media fire needing to be extinguished.
The issue has been simmering for several years, but it reached a flash
point in the United States in November 1998 when the environmental group
Greenpeace issued a report showing that soft vinyl children's toys contain
significant levels of toxic chemicals - up to 41 percent by weight.
Greenpeace warned that children may ingest the chemicals, known as
phthalates, if they put the toys in their mouths. "When children suck and
chew on soft vinyl toys, it is similar to squeezing a sponge. Water comes
out of a sponge, just as these toxic softeners can leach out of a toy,"
explained Joe Di Gangi, the author of the Greenpeace report.
Greenpeace was not alone on the issue. Health authorities in several other
countries, including Austria, Denmark and Sweden, had already issued
regulations banning phthalates. Similar measures were under consideration,
along with warning advisories to parents and requests for retailers to
voluntarily recall vinyl toys, in half a dozen other European countries
ACSH responded to the "scare" the way it has responded on many similar
past occasions, by announcing that it was forming a committee to study the
question, headed by former U.S. Surgeon-General Dr. C. Everett Koop.
"Dr. Koop will oversee the blue ribbon committee's work and ensure that
the most qualified scientists are recruited to look at the science on
phthalates," said ACSH president Elizabeth Whelan. "We know that people
want to hear from independent scientists and physicians on important
safety issues. The committee's report will provide an authoritative point
of view on the safety of phthalates in vinyl products."
Most people who read the news probably concluded that ACSH - described in
numerous stories as a "health advocacy group" - was some sort of impartial
consumer organization that could be expected to look seriously at the
issue. Some reports noted vaguely that ACSH "gets some funding from
industry." Overall, however, the media did such a thorough job of
obscuring ACSH's identity as an industry front group that Plastics News,
an industry trade publication, mistakenly credited ACSH for beginning the
"barrage" against the plastics industry over the phthalate issue.
In fact, ACSH is anything but a critic of industry. Since its founding in
1978, it has actively courted industry support, offering itself as an
off-the-shelf, available-on-demand source of "sound scientific expertise"
in defense of virtually every form and type of industrial pollution known
to the twentieth century.
Following the Money
For public consumption, ACSH calls itself "a science-based, public health
group that is directed by a board of 300 leading physicians and scientists
. . . providing mainstream, peer reviewed scientific information to
When appealing to industry, ACSH uses a different pitch. A revealing
reference crops up, for example, in the minutes of a March 16, 1978
meeting of the board of directors of the Manufacturing Chemists'
Association (today known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association).
Written in the same month that ACSH began operating, the minutes record an
appeal by MCA director William J. Driver, who noted that Whelan had
founded "a tax-exempt organization composed of scientists whose viewpoints
are more similar to those of business than dissimilar. . . . ACSH is being
pinched for funds, but in the interest of independence and credibility
will not accept support from any chemical company or any company which
could even remotely be concerned with the aims of the council."
Notwithstanding this desire to make ACSH appear independent, Driver added
that "Dr. Whelan would be happy to hear from" MCA members who "are
interested in the work of the council and know of possible sources of
Shortly after its founding, ACSH abandoned even the appearance of
independent funding. In a 1997 interview, Whelan explained that she was
already being called a "paid liar for industry," so she figured she might
as well go ahead and take industry money without restrictions.
As of 1991, when the ACSH last made public its funding profile, some 40
percent of ACSH's $1.5 million annual budget is supplied directly by
industry, including a long list of food, drug and chemical companies that
have a vested interest in supporting Whelan's message. The organization is
believed to still be heavily industry funded.
Stacking the Deck
ACSH claims to be an "independent, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization"
that adds "reason and balance to debates about public health issues."
Whatever "balance" means, however, it definitely doesn't mean ideological
neutrality. ACSH is unabashedly right-wing and pro-industry. Whelan makes
no bones about her political leanings, describing herself as a lifelong
conservative who is "more libertarian than Republican." ACSH's board of
directors is also heavily stacked with right-wing ideologues.
Take, for example, ACSH board chairman A. Alan Moghissi. A former official
with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Moghissi characterizes
environmentalism as a belief that "members of endangered species deserve
protection and that, because there are billions of humans, humanity does
not qualify for protection."
As an "expert on risk assessment," Moghissi appears regularly on rosters
of industry-supported "expert panels" that work to undermine environmental
regulations. He serves on the advisory board of numerous
anti-environmental organizations and right-wing "think tanks," including
the American Policy Center's "EPA Watch," the Committee for a Constructive
Tomorrow, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, and the National
Wilderness Institute, a "wise use" anti-environmental organization that
calls for abolition of the Endangered Species Act.
In 1990, Moghissi served on a panel created by the far-right Competitive
Enterprise Institute, in league with Consumer Alert and the National
Consumer Coalition to challenge the EPA's policy requiring asbestos
removal from schools and other public buildings.
Moghissi also chairs the Science Advisory Committee of the Environmental
Issues Council (EIC), which was established in 1993 by industry trade
associations including the Association of American Farm Bureaus, the
Association of General Contractors, the National Cattleman's Association,
the American Pulpwood Association, the Natural Gas Supply Association, the
United States Business and Industrial Council, the Mountain States Legal
Foundation (MSLF), as well as the Independent Petroleum Association of
The purpose of the EIC was to serve as a "new ally against ill-conceived
environmental regulation" according to Petroleum Independent, an IPAA
trade publication. "The industries represented face common problems," it
explained. "The spotted owl might seem to be an active threat only to the
timber industry but is in actuality a direct threat to agriculture, mining
and virtually any land user. In addition to the Endangered Species Act,
all industries are seriously threatened by federal policies regarding
wetlands, hazardous waste, and a multitude of other environmental issues."
Other members of the ACSH board of directors include:
* Attorney Jerald Hill, a former long-time president of the Landmark
Legal Foundation, which appears in the Heritage Foundation's list of
conservative "resource organizations." A recipient of funding from
right-wing gazillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, Landmark has a $1 million
annual budget and a reputation as a "conservative's American Civil
Liberties Union." It has filed lawsuits against labor unions and school
desegregation and has fought for legislation that would allow parents to
direct public education funding toward their children's private schools.
(Whitewater special investigator Kenneth Starr also has ties to Landmark,
which has focused heavily in recent years on hyping the Clintongate
* Fredric Steinberg of Mainstreet Health Care, a private HMO in Atlanta,
Georgia, who regards Canada's single-payer healthcare system as "the
socialized road to medical oblivion."
* Henry Miller, a former FDA official now at the Hoover Institution, who
regularly grinds an ax against what he considers the FDA's
"extraordinarily burdensome regulations" regarding genetically engineered
foods and new drugs. In 1996, Miller also editorialized against the FDA's
proposal to regulate tobacco. "The FDA's anti-tobacco initiative . . . has
not been without its own costs to American consumers and taxpayers," he
stated, describing FDA commissioner David Kessler as "personally consumed
by this single issue."
The ACSH board of directors also includes a number of eminent scientists,
such as Dr. Robert White of Case Western Reserve University and Dr. Norman
Borlaug, a Nobel laureate. What is consistent across the board, however,
is that all of ACSH1s directors and advisors support its conservative
"Some talented scientists may not understand that ACSH uses a veneer of
science to obscure its anti-regulatory, pro-business position," says
Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "ACSH's
scientific position is to dismiss most problems that kill fewer people
than tobacco as not priorities and to put the burden of proof that a
chemical is dangerous on consumers and lawmakers, rather than putting the
burden on industry to demonstrate that its chemical is safe. ACSH provides
a haven for scientists who think that environmentalists are crazy,
misguided fanatics who make mountains out of molehills."
In addition to the board of directors, ACSH also has a 300-member "board
of scientific and policy members." Many of these scientists are supported
by commercial interests.
Other advisors include familiar names from the list of "usual suspects"
who appear regularly as scientific experts in a variety of
anti-environmental, pro-industry forums: Dennis Avery, Michael Gough,
Patrick J. Michaels, Stephen Safe, and S. Fred Singer, to name a few.
Several, including Floy Lilley and J. Gordon Edwards, as well as Moghissi,
have written articles for 21st Century and Technology, a publication
affiliated with lunatic-fringe conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche.
When ACSH claims to offer "peer reviewed" scientific information,
therefore, the public deserves to know that its peer review process is
totally different from that of a reputable medical or scientific journal.
"The ACSH review is done by members of its own advisory committee,"
Jacobson says, "all of whom, by definition, support the organization's
anti-regulatory, pro-business stance."
The seventeen-member ACSH board of directors also includes representatives
from two PR and advertising firms: Albert Nickel of Lyons Lavey Nickel
Swift (their motto: "We change perceptions"), and Lorraine Thelian of
Thelian is a Ketchum senior partner and director of its Washington, D.C.
office, which handles the bulk of the firm's "environmental PR work" on
behalf of clients including Dow Chemical, the Aspirin Foundation of
America, Bristol Myers Squibb, the American Automobile Manufacturers
Association, the Consumer Aerosol Products Council, the National
Pharmaceutical Council, the North American Insulation Manufacturers
Association, and the American Industrial Health Council, another
industry-funded group that lobbies against what it considers "excessive"
regulation of carcinogens. Ketchum boasts that the D.C. office "has dealt
with issues ranging from regulation of toxins, global climate change,
electricity deregulation, nuclear energy, product and chemical
contamination, and agricultural chemicals and Superfund sites, to name but
In 1994, for example, Ketchum's D.C. office worked on behalf of Dow and
the Chlorine Chemistry Council to round up scientists who would challenge
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 1994 report on the health
effects of dioxin. Even before the report was released, Ketchum swung into
action with a thirty-city PR blitz designed to undercut press coverage for
the EPA report. "We identified a number of independent scientists and took
them on the road" to meet with journalists, academics, political leaders
and local health officials, Mark Schannon, an associate director of
Ketchum's Washington office, said. "Basically what we're trying to do is
assure that industry's voice is heard by people who make policy decisions
both here and around the country," Schannon said.
URL - http://tompaine.com/features/2000/03/27/index.html