fall 2001, the US Public Health Service announced its conclusion
that a graduate student in John McLachlan's laboratory at
Tulane University, Steven Arnold, had committed scientific
fraud. The same announcement cleared McLachlan himself of any wrongdoing.
fraud involved Arnold's fabrication of data that were used in a
paper in published in Science (272:1489-1492) on extremely powerful
synergy among estrogenic compounds.
right-wing chemical industry supporters--Dennis Avery and Steven
Milloy--have used the Public Health Service's announcement to
claim that this invalidates all research on endocrine disruption.
As ludicrous as that assertion is scientifically, their claims are
a potential source of confusion for people who do not follow this
issue closely. I have therefore posted below a detailed analysis
of what they are claiming.
Avery's commentary (see below) is a classic example of PR spinning
that seizes upon an element of truth and then distorts it in ways
to serve a larger purpose, in this case arguing to weaken standards
that protect public health from pesticide exposures. Milloy is a
fellow-traveler who has written similarly
false assertions. The comments below focus on Avery's commentary
but apply equally to Milloy's
background, note that Avery has been a relentless, indeed rabid
advocate for the pesticide industry. A
good example of Avery's work was described in the New York Times
on 17 February 1999 in an article by Marian Burros titled: "Eating
Well. Anti-organic and flawed." (available on the web at: www.purefood.org/Organic/denavery.cfm
and several other organic food sites). In essence, Avery fabricated
a quote designed to make organic food appear more dangerous than
conventional food and attributed the quote to an expert from the
US Centers for Disease Control. Despite repeated denials by the
CDC, Avery persisted (and still persists) in using this as evidence
for his arguments. (also see www.winrock.org/wallacecenter/press001a.htm
for a related request by the Wallace Institute that Avery withdraw
demonstrably false claims; and www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1999Q4/avery.html
for an analysis of Avery's tactics by PR Watch.
is often the case, the half-truths told by people like Avery can
be reduced to simple sound-bites, while the truth is much more complicated.
With respect to his claims in the commentary distributed on CEHN
list, Avery got the first fact correct but then built upon it a
completely distorted view of science and history.
is a brief chronology of some relevent events to provide a context.
I've compiled this from Sheldon Krimsky's history of endocrine disruption
as a public issue ("Hormonal Chaos, published in 2000) and
through consulting some of the people who were in government at
the time, including Dr. Lynn Goldman, then Assistant Administrator
at EPA on pesticide issues, as well as via review of relevant documents.
My comments after the chronology refers back to some of the people
and events in the chronology.
Breast cancer activists on Long Island begin to engage Senator
A D'Amato (R, NY) in research on causes of breast cancer
1991: Wingspread conference on endocrine disruption
1993: National Academy of Sciences issues a report on kids and
pesticides which establishes that current regulations were inadequate.
1993: Senator D'Amato testifies before a joint hearing of the
Senate and House and raises possible role of endocrine disruption
in causing breast cancer.
1995: EPA endocrine disruptor workshop
1995: EPA/Industry endocrine disruptor ecological effects workshop
1995 More D'Amato testimony
1996: Our Stolen Future published
1996: Synergy article by Arnold et al. appears in Science
1996: Food Quality Protection Act passed
1997: McLachlan publishes letter in Science withdrawing the Arnold
1998: A Tulane University investigation of the incident exonerates
McLachlan but finds that Arnold possessed insufficient data to
support the paper's conclusions.
2001: US Public Health Service reports finding that Arnold submitted
Avery describes, Steven Arnold, a post-doc at Tulane University
working on synergistic interactions among chemicals did commit scientific
fraud. There were challenges raised about the results right from
the outset, enough so that in the second edition of "Our Stolen
Future" (the epilogue to the second edition was written a few
months after the Arnold paper was published) we wrote: "If
further experiments confirm these findings, this study will undoubtedly
have profound implications for the regulation of chemicals, which
are now reviewed individually." (p258, paperback edition).
Because they had important implications, many labs attempted to
replicate them, including the lab in which Arnold worked, run by
John McLachlan at Tulane University. When McLachlan himself could
not replicate them, he withdrew the results with a letter to Science
(where it had been published originally). A subsequent investigation
by Tulane found McLachlan without blame in the incident. Arnold
finally confessed to having faked the results.
is a detailed description of this episode in Sheldon Krimsky's book
about the history of endocrine disruption, Hormonal Chaos (pages
169-163). And in an editorial about the whole episode, the editors
of Environmental Health Perspectives (published by the National
Institute of Environmental Health Sciencess) praise McLachlan for
the integrity with which he handled the whole process (EHP August
Avery uses Arnold's fraud to argue to a wildly wrong conclusion.
He misrepresents both the science and the politics.
a scientific perspective, while Arnold's data suggested extraordinarily
high synergistic interactions among chemicals, synergy itself was
nothing new. Other studies had revealed synergistic interactions
before Arnold's data were published, and studies have been published
since. In fact this is a very active area of research. There was
already more than adequate justification to require examining the
effects of combinations of pesticides. Research since then has reinforced
this very strongly. Arnold's data suggested the problem was even
worse, but it was bad enough already.
has the substance and the politics of the Food Quality Protection
Act of 1996 completely wrong. The FQPA does not incorporate concerns
for synergistic interactions. It does incorporate concerns for additive
interactions, but only under very stringent circumstances. It does
include provisions for testing substances for endocrine effects,
but no regulatory provisions.
Arnold study was of virtually no importance in the either the language
of the act or the political pressure to pass it--it arrived way
too late to have any impact. This is where Avery is distorting,
indeed creating facts to support his purpose most conspicuously
and taking quotes out of context. Krimsky's book Hormonal Chaos
has a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the Act (pages 69-74).
Four factors were most important:
in 1993 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that recommended
a complete overhaul of the Food Quality Protection Act based on
its assessment that the current version was inadequate, especially
with respect to risks for children. This report is the core of the
science behind the FQPA, not an isolated research report on synergism.
a Republican Senator, Al D'Amato (NY), was under pressure from the
breast cancer lobby because of elevated breast cancer rates on Long
Island in his home state. As early as 1993 he began talking about
the possibility of estrogenic chemicals having a role in breast
cancer and raised very large sums of money for research in this
area. He then strongly supported the development of endocrine specific
issues in the FQPA, years before the Arnold study came out.
the Republican Congress in the summer of 1996 was desperate to pass
legislation that it could point to as being supportive of environmental
protection. Recall the era-the Republican take-over of the House
had led to a series of extreme attempts to turn back environmental
protection, and by summer of 1996 with elections looming the backlash
was upon them.
again before Arnold's study came out, industry began supporting
the bill because it involved removing a specific clause from pesticide
regulations, the "Delany Clause" which required zero tolerance
for food additives that had been shown to be human or animal carcinogens
at any dose. It was replaced with a "reasonable certainty of
no harm" standard.
bill was ultimately supported by a wide range of representatives
of the agricultural industry, food processors and distributors,
as well as environmental groups. The law was passed unanimously
on a roll call vote in the House and by unanimous consent in the
have imbedded additional comments in blue within Avery's text, which
follows. Avery's text is in black:
A Bioterrorist Caught-But Not Punished. Dennis T. Avery
A bioterrorist has been caught. An American scientist who terrified
the U.S. public, hoodwinked the scientific press, and panicked the
congress has been found out. The Federal Office of Research Integrity
just ruled that Steven R.Arnold, a former researcher at the Tulane
University Center for Bioenvironmental Research, "committed
scientific misconduct by intentionally falsifying the research results
published in the journal Science and by providing falsified and
fabricated materials to investigating officials." Arnold claimed
that the U.S. food supply was dangerously contaminated,
the Science article makes no such claim. This is typical Avery,
manufacturing claims when he needs them.
sent federal authorities off on a costly wild goose chase that continues
to this day.
Scientific justification for research into these issues came long
before Arnold and it has continued to grow ever since. It is anything
but a wild goose chase. This statement by Avery reveals the depth
of his biases (or of his ignorance).
used high-level political allies
a post-doc with high-level political allies?
publicize a scientific fraud that imposed untold amounts of anxiety
on the public. He cost the United States economy billions of dollars,
with the toll still mounting. His punishment? He will not be allowed
to receive any federal scientific grants for five years.
Avery's rhetoric about cost to the economy has no basis in fact.
Arnold's data had no such impact. As noted above, they played virtually
no role in FQPA. And they were withdrawn too quickly to have any
lasting impact on scientific research (as noted in the EHP editorial)
is one of the most dramatic scientific frauds of modern times.
JPM: "Most dramatic scientific frauds..."??
What about decades of scientific fraud by tobacco companies and
by lead companies? What about cold fusion? What about efforts to
cover up the health consequences of DES? Or TRW's
fraudulent representations of the effectiveness of national
missile defense, shown by MIT scientist Theodore Postol to be practically
and theoretically incapable of defending the US against missile
attack. Avery's rhetoric here reaches beyond the realm of credibility.
Arnold committed a fraud, but it was revealed and dealt with before
real harm could be caused.
major scientific laboratory published remarkable new information
in the world's top science journal, confirming one of the public's
worst fears. The Tulane Center said it found that various pesticides,
safe when tested individually, were 1,000 times more dangerous when
tested together. It raised the specter of modern agriculture's chemicals
undermining the health of the human population and the natural ecology
through a blind spot in our regulatory testing.
JPM: It remains a blind spot in regulatory
testing. Chemicals are still testing one by one even though many
studies have shown unambigously that there are interactions among
chemicals in their effects.
environmental movement claimed for decades that this danger existed,
but never produced any evidence. A book was published in early 1996,
with a remarkable title - Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening
Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival? - A Scientific Detective
Story. The book speculated that man-made chemicals were causing
ailments ranging from cancer to attention deficit disorder by disrupting
our endocrine systems. The book'sforward was by then-Vice President
Al Gore, who called it a legitimate sequel to Rachel Carson's famed
Our Stolen Future was widely noted in the media-and just as widely
criticized by respected scientists.
the most vocal critics of Our Stolen Future were participants in
an effort called The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition (TASSC).
Research just published in the American Journal of Public Health
reveals (by analysis of Philip Morris documents) that TASSC was
founded to undermine tobacco laws. Philip Morris then brought the
chemical industry in to make it look like a broader coalition. Links
to this study are available via:
Even the book's author, Theo Colbert, admitted she had only suspicions
Avery's lack of accuracy shines here. There were three coauthors
of the book (including me) and he misspells Colborn's name. He has
taken Colborn's comment completely out of context. And in the ensuing
years, the scientific case for endocrine disruption as a serious
issue has strengthened even more.
then, in June 1996, came the Tulane study, claiming that combinations
of pesticides were radically more dangerous endocrine disrupters
than we had known. Carol Browner, the Administrator of the Environmental
Protection Agency said, "The new study is the strongest evidence
to date that combinations of estrogenic chemicals may be potent
enough to significantly increase the risk of breast cancer, prostate
cancer, birth defects and other major health concerns." The
EPA's pesticide chief, Lynn Goldman, noted, "I just can't remember
a time where I've seen data so persuasive . . . the results are
very clean looking."
Avery takes Goldman out of context here. According to Goldman "I
went on to say that IF REPLICATED the results WOULD have serious
implications for testing. I never concluded, privately or publically,
on the basis of a single laboratory experiment, that the entire
testing program of the agency should be turned upside down. Moreover,
industry knows this very well since we had many discussions over
the issue at the time and again and again I emphasized the need
for replication, not only of the original experiment but also of
other experiments in other systems in order to understand the finding..
The U.S. Congress was just then writing rewriting pesticide law,
and the Tulane study stampeded near-unanimous approval in July 1996,
for a statute that established an expensive new set of tests for
pesticide endocrine disruption. The EPA was also given dramatically
increased authority to tighten residue limits for any pesticide
which the agency though might endanger the health of children.
As noted above, Avery gets his history wrong here. The Tulane study
had no such effect on the bill's passage. It was nearly unanimous
because industry liked the disappearance of the Delaney clause,
and because of the support of a powerful Republican Senator. The
scientific rationale for FQPA came from the National Academy's study,
based on hundreds (if not thousands) of studies.
EPA is currently using that authority to drive off the market safety-proven
pesticides that for decades have protected our fruits and vegetables
from bugs and bacteria, and our homes from termites. The resulting
increases in termite damage alone are probably costing billions
of dollars per year. Because of the EPA's new FQPA authority, we're
currently in danger of losing a host of effective minor-crop chemicals
that help protect cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables from voracious
Not, however, because of their endocrine effects. The health endpoints
used to remove the chemicals to which Avery is referring are based
on old and very conservative regulatory standards.
By scientific standards, the Tulane fraud began to unravel quickly.
Within six months, other scientists were reporting that they couldn't
reproduce the Tulane results. The Tulane lab director was forced
to sign a Science retraction in August 1997, admitting that Tulane
couldn't reproduce its own results.
"Forced to sign" completely misrepresents McLachlan's
role in this. See my comments above.
Arnold still did not admit his fraud. He merely said, "I can't
really explain the original findings." In August 1999, an expert
committee of the National Research Council-a panel that included
representatives of the activist community as well as mainstream
scientists-reported there was no evidence that chemicals in the
environment were disrupting hormonal process in humans or wildlife.
This is a fraudulant misrepresentation of the NRC's results. Briefly,
the NRC found:
is strong evidence from studies of wildlife and laboratory
animals that chemicals can interfere with the body's natural
hormone system and disrupt the biological process of development
in the womb.
There is some evidence from people, particularly for high
exposures and even for moderate exposures of one class of
chemicals -- PCBs -- that a hormone disrupter can affect human
The report demonstrated there is ample evidence that humans
are experiencing an increase in the same kind of health problems
that hormone-disrupting chemicals cause in animals.
The academy confirmed that human exposure to these contaminants
is widespread and that animal studies are a vital guide to
identifying health risks for people.
The panel members also concurred that hormonally active chemicals
can affect humans and wildlife at high doses, but they could
not reach agreement about whether these compounds are in fact
causing harm at the levels encountered in the environment.
As the report stated, "whether environmental exposures....are
responsible for a variety of widespread adverse effects on
the health of humans and wildlife remains a topic of debate."
With regard to the most debated health effects,
such as testicular cancer, breast cancer, and sperm count
declines, the report concluded that the crucial studies that
might help settle the question have simply not been done.
Moreover, that panel had strong industry representation that
worked to undermine the review process. It also stopped reviewing
evidence published after 1997 even though many new studies
were flooding the scientific journals during that period,
and have continued to build since.
summaries see www.ourstolenfuture.org/NewScience/newscience.htm
You can find a link to the NRC report at:
Royal Society of London (Britain's counterpart to the NRC) also
published an assessment at about the same time. It is even more
at odds with Avery's conclusion. The Royal Society found the evidence
strong enough to justify new protections, observing that "regulations
cannot be put on hold until all the evidence has been collected."
link to this report is at: www.ourstolenfuture.org/Consensus/royalsociety.htm
not only committed scientific fraud, he lied about it afterward.
To this day, activists still loudly warn that pesticides have been
"linked" to endocrine disruption; and American consumers
needlessly worry about the healthiness of their food.
They unquestionably have been linked. Many pesticides in modern
use are endocrine disruptors. Avery is ignoring a huge body of scientific
literature when he writes this.
The flawed Food Quality Protection Act remains on the books. And,
farmers are losing still more of the tools that have allowed them
to feed more people on less land. Is this really a victimless white-collar
crime, calling for nothing more than a federal tap on the wrist?
bioterrorism a harmless prank when committed by a "scientist"?
If the answer is "yes, " it's a dangerous precedent.
And what about an industry schill telling half-truths to protect
an industry whose products are causing disease and illness?
Peterson Myers, Ph.D.