Quackery and Fraud--American Council on Science and Health
excerpted from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly
Quackery and Fraud
American Council on Science and Health
excerpted from Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly
Today the chemical industry has many clandestine front groups that pretend
to be "independent" and "scientific."1 However, back in 1989, when the
Alar story made it onto CBS's "60 Minutes" TV show, the chemical industry
had only a few such "public interest pretender" groups. In 1989 the
industry's main front group was something called the American Council on
Science and Health (ACSH). The ACSH had been started in 1978 by Elizabeth
("Beth") Whelan, who has a degree in public health from Harvard, a
devotion to the chemical industry, and a quick tongue.
Whelan's mission is to prove to the world that industrial chemicals are
safe, particularly industrial chemicals in food.
ACSH does "independent" studies of topics like artificial sweeteners, then
seeks funding from groups like the Calorie Control Council to disseminate
the results. Monsanto and its subsidiaries, G.D. Searle and the Nutrasweet
Co., gave ACSH $105,000 in 1992 making Monsanto "our largest funder,"
according to an ACSH memo.1 The close ties between ACSH and the
petrochemical industry are revealed in a comment by Ms. Whelan after she
lost some funding from Shell Oil: "When one of the largest international
petrochemical companies will not support ACSH, the great defender of
petrochemical companies, one wonders who will."1
With a seed grant of $25,000 from Alar's manufacturer, Uniroyal (plus
annual donations of roughly $600,000 from the likes of Exxon, Union
Carbide, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Mills, and other chemical
corporations),2 ACSH got onto the Alar case like a bulldog in 1989 and
hasn't let go since. More than any other organization, Whelan's ACSH
created the false mythology of the "Alar scare." It was Whelan who coined
the phrase "Alar hoax." If it is true that Beth Whelan almost
singlehandedly created the false myth of the "Alar scare," it is also true
that the "Alar scare" created Beth Whelan: "It was the great Alar scare of
1989 that boosted Whelan into the media stratosphere,"3 says Howard Kurtz
writing in the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW.
Because she has a sharp tongue and isn't constrained by the facts, Whelan
is very quotable, and the press loves to quote her. For example, she'll
tell you that the National Cancer Institute and the American Medical
Association have both "gone on record saying that the use of Alar on
apples never posed any risk to the health of either children or adults."4
Unfortunately, Whelan's claim is completely false. Neither organization
has ever taken an official position on Alar. Whelan made it up. But it
sounds convincing, and this audacious style gets her onto the talk shows
and into the newspapers where she spins out her false myths, her
Libertarian revisions of recent history, and her "humans are special"
defense of the chemical industry. It was Whelan who coined the phrase,
"Mice are not little men," meaning chemicals that cause cancer in mere
mice should not be of special concern to humans.
To the press, Whelan's consistent line is that "a virtual consensus" has
emerged among scientists that Alar was never a threat to public health.5
However, Whelan has to play fast and loose with the facts to create the
appearance of such a "consensus." In February, 1992, Whelan prepared a
memo called "Confidential update on Alar, 3rd year anniversary, quest to
interest '60 Minutes' in an update."5 The memo describes Whelan's efforts
to gather statements from the National Cancer Institute, the American
Cancer Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics saying that Alar
was not a problem. When she couldn't get such statements, she expressed
dismay in her memo, "So many professional organizations, including the
National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society flatly refused to
say that the food supply was safe, that pesticide residues in food were
not a cause of cancer, that Alar did not pose a risk. ... All of this only
serves to make consumers worry more. Indeed the original statements we got
from NCI and the current statements from ACS play right into the hands of
those who seek to convince us that the American food supply is not safe
because of the presence of pesticide residues," Whelan wrote.6
Nevertheless, at her press conference Whelan asserted again that there is
a consensus among the world's scientific experts that Alar is safe for
children to eat. And the press repeats these fabrications, thus
establishing the enduring false myth of the "Alar scare."
The philosophy that underpins the false myth of the "Alar scare" seems to
be this: Lies that shore up a disintegrating humanist culture are
justified. Or perhaps it is much simpler than that: Lies that boost the
chemical industry's bottom line are justified.
1. See, for example, "Public Interest Pretenders," CONSUMER REPORTS Vol.
59, No. 5 (May 1994), pgs 316-320.
2. American Council on Science and Health, TWELFTH ANNUAL FINANCIAL REPORT
[Covering Fiscal period July 1, 1989-June 30, 1990] (New York: American
Council on Science and Health, 1990), pg. 6.
3. Howard Kurtz, "Dr. Whelan's Media Operation," COLUMBIA JOURNALISM
REVIEW Vol. 8, No. 6 (March 1990), pgs. 43-47.
4. Elizabeth M. Whelan, "Comforted With Apples [letter to the editor],"
COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW November/December, 1996, pg. 7.
5. For example, see "EPA Should Declare Alar No Risk to Humans, ACSH
Says," FOOD CHEMICAL NEWS (January 6, 1992, pg. 41.
6. Elizabeth Whelan, "Confidential Update on Alar, 3rd Year anniversary,
quest to interest '60 Minutes' in a revisit," (New York: American Council
on Science and Health, February 20, 1992).
Quoted with permission from Lies In Defense of Humanism, by Peter
Montague, Rachels Environment & Health Weekly, #534, February 20, 1997.