Follow the Money

As government has been "downsized" in recent years, corporations have found opportunities to fund scientific research and education that the government used to pay for. The New England Journal of Medicine Jan. 8 reported that scientific and medical experts who take corporate money hold opinions that differ significantly from experts who don't take corporate money.

Researchers in Toronto, Canada examined 70 articles (with a total of 86 authors) on calcium-channel blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Of the 71 authors who responded to the survey, 96 percent of the supportive authors had financial relationships with manufacturers of channel blockers, as compared with 60 percent of the neutral authors, and 37 percent of the critical authors.

In only 2 of the 70 articles did authors divulge their connections to corporations. The report concluded, "The medical profession has failed to develop and enforce strict guidelines for disclosing conflicts of interest." And, "Full disclosure of relationships between physicians and pharmaceutical manufacturers is necessary to affirm the integrity of the medical profession and maintain public confidence."

Unfortunately, even the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine sometimes fails to disclose conflicts of interest.

Last November 20th, the Journal printed a scathing review of Sandra Steingraber's book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer [reviewed on page 15 in this issue]. The Journal review was signed "Jerry H. Berke, M.D., M.P.H., 49 Windsor Ave., Acton, MA 01720" -- just the way any unaffiliated medical practitioner would sign such a review.

This was the first negative review Steingraber's book had received. The book, now in its second printing, has been widely praised. Steingraber herself was recently named an "outstanding women of the year" by MS. magazine.

In early December, it was revealed that Berke is director of toxicology for W.R. Grace, one of the world's largest chemical manufacturers and a notorious polluter. And while the Journal's book review editor has said he did not know Berke was employed by Grace, Berke told a columnist for the Toronto Star that the conflict-of-interest form he signed for the Journal clearly identified his Grace connection and all his correspondence from Schwartz was addressed to him at W.R. Grace. Furthermore, Berke was identified as a Grace employee in another book review he published in the Journal in 1995.

The editor-in-chief of the Journal, Jerome P. Kassirer, told the Associated Press, "It's laughable that Berke would think that he could write an objective review of the book given that he was an employee of W.R. Grace."

Unfortunately, Kassirer himself doesn't always recognize a conflict-of-interest when he sees one. In late 1997, Kassirer turned over the editorial columns of the Journal to Stephen Safe, a researcher who during 1997 was receiving $150,000 (20 percent of Safe's research budget) from the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

Safe's editorial -- like Jerry Berke's review -- began with an attack against environmentalism: "Chemophobia, the unreasonable fear of chemicals, is a common public reaction to scientific or media reports suggesting that exposure to various environmental contaminants may pose a threat to health."

Safe himself told the Boston Globe, "I felt a little twinge" about the potential for a conflict of interest when writing the editorial, "but it was not much of a twinge. ... There's hardly any life scientist in the country who hasn't had funding from the industry" -- the old "Everybody's doing it" defense.

Unfortunately, just about everybody is doing it. ... In other words, if you want to understand "objectivity" in the science and medicine of environment-and-health these days, the same advice applies as it does in politics: follow the money. Increased corporate funding of science and medicine has the potential to corrupt almost anyone.

-- Adapted from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #581, Peter Montague, Editor. For the full report, email INFO@rachel.clark.net with the single word HELP in the message. Back issues also available via ftp from ftp.std.com/periodicals/rachel and from http://www.monitor.net/rachel/

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