Corporate Front Groups and the Abuse of Science

Like many other corporate front groups, the American Council on Science
and Health (ACSH) uses threats and misinformation to suppress science,
particularly when such science threatens the interests of those individuals
and corporations that profit from activities that threaten human health
and the environment. 

ACSH was founded in 1978 by Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Frederick Stare.
Whelan’s early writing career included a freelance writing assignment for
pharmaceutical company Pfizer criticizing the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). She also wrote for what she refers to as “consumer magazines,” but
which would be more accurately described as fashion magazines, such as
Harpers Bazaar and Glamour. Her hyperbolically-titled books include Panic
in the Pantry
and Toxic Terror

In 1997 Dr. Gilbert Ross joined ACSH as a staff assistant. Ross became
coordinator of medical projects for ACSH in February 1998, and subsequently
was appointed medical director, then executive director in 1999. Although
his biography on ACSH’s website does not mention it, Ross spent 1996 in
a federal prison after having been sentenced to 46 months for his participation
in a scheme to defraud New York’s Medicaid program. Ross became involved
after responding to an ad in the New York Times promising “very, very good
$$.” The trial judge also ruled that Ross obstructed justice by committing
perjury. Ross was barred by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
(DHHS) for ten years from participating in either the Medicare or Medicaid
programs. The DHHS felt that he was “a highly untrustworthy individual”
who had engaged in “medically indefensible” practices. Ross’s career has
included defending the Wood Preservative Science Council against well-documented
evidence that arsenic in pressure-treated wood poses a risk to human health
and writing on behalf of the farmed salmon industry that the polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs) in fish do not cause any health problems, including cancer.
Ross is now in charge of all scientific projects and publications, as well
as personnel issues involving the scientific staff, at ACHS. 

A 2001 survey showed that ACSH’s board of directors included anti-regulatory
scientists like chairperson A. Alan Moghissi, a former Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) official who had served on a panel to challenge the EPA’s
policy requiring asbestos removal from schools and other public buildings;
Henry Miller, a former FDA official, now at the conservative Hoover Institution,
who campaigned on behalf of fat substitute Olestra; corporate public relations
professionals Albert Nickel, from the firm Lyons Lavey Nickel Swift, whose
motto is “We change perceptions”; and Lorraine Thelian, a senior partner
at Ketchum Communications, which handles “environmental PR work” for Dow
Chemical, the Aspirin Foundation of America, Bristol Myers Squibb, and
the National Pharmaceutical Council. 


Early funding for ACSH came from the right-wing Scaife and John M. Olin
Foundations. In 1980, the group began accepting corporate funding. That
same year, co-founder Stare wrote to tobacco giant Philip Morris seeking
financial support: “We are a voice of scientific reason in a sea of pseudo
science, exaggeration and misinformation.” In fairness to ACSH, they have
since spoken out regarding the dangers of smoking, however, they have irresponsibly
promoted the use of smokeless tobacco for smoking cessation. 

ACSH soon abandoned even the appearance of independent funding. In 1997
Whelan explained that she was already being called a “paid liar for industry,”
so she might as well go ahead and take industry money without restrictions.
Dr. Whelan claims that ACSH accepts funding from corporations “as long
as no strings are attached.” However, in 1982, ACSH filed a friend-of-the-court
brief in a lawsuit brought by the Formaldehyde Institute. The brief was
paid for by Georgia-Pacific Co., a leading manufacturer of formaldehyde
and a member of the Formaldehyde Institute. Georgia-Pacific paid its Washington
law firm $40,000 to write the brief, which ACSH then submitted under its
name. Formaldehyde has been classified as a human carcinogen by the International
Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the

Despite claims that it is not influenced by its donors, ACSH conducted
an “independent” study of artificial sweeteners, then sought funding from
groups like the Calorie Control Council to disseminate the results. Monsanto
and its subsidiaries, GD Searle and the Nutrasweet Company, gave ACSH $105,000
in 1992, making Monsanto ACSH’s largest funder. In a 1992 internal memo
Whelan bemoaned the loss of Shell Oil’s contribution: “When one of the
largest international petrochemical companies will not support ACSH, the
great defender of petrochemical companies, one wonders who will.” 

While ACSH stopped listing its donors in 1991, the list of donors from
that year includes energy, chemical, pharmaceutical, automobile, agribusiness,
and food and beverage giants, such as Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Union
Carbide, ConAgra, and PepsiCo. According to the Capital Research Group,
ACSH received $299,000 in corporate contributions in 1997, making it number
39 on the list of nonprofit public affairs organizations receiving corporate
contributions. Between 2000 and 2003, ACSH received $90,000 from major
polluter Exxon-Mobil. In 2003 Whelan stated, “About 40% of ACSH funding
[comes] from private foundations, about 40% from corporations, and the
rest of the sale of ACSH publications.” ACSH now claims to receive financial
support from “about 300 different sources, including foundations, trade
associations, corporations and individuals.” 

In 2003 Whelan’s salary was $326,612; Whelan, Stier, and Ross, the three
highest paid staff members, made a collective $638,186. 

Corporate Front Groups 

Corporate front groups are organizations whose agendas match those of corporate
interests, and whose past and/or present ties show a strong pattern of
financial and/or advisory links with corporations. Corporate front groups’
pronouncements masquerade as science; they disseminate misinformation,
which benefits corporate interests and serve as material for the public
relations activities of those corporations, as well as encouraging further
corporate financial support. Such groups, including ACSH, tend to promote
a pro-business, conservative ideology. 

It is also true that there are groups which take money from non-corporate
special interests and employ myths and pseudoscience to spread fears and
exaggerate risks about human health. This is common with respect to entities
promoting so-called “naturopathic” and “homeopathic” remedies. In either
case, the abuse and misuse of science is to be condemned. 

There exists a large body of evidence, particularly with respect to the
pharmaceutical industry, that corporate funding is associated with secrecy,
publication bias, and trials designed to produce outcomes favorable to
a company’s product. Pharmaceutical companies have been ordered to pay
large, court-ordered fines for their malfeasance. Whelan has actually criticized
Dr. Marcia Angell (former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of
) for her accurate and well-documented criticisms of the industry. 

Major medical journals have adopted policies designed to minimize biases
inherent in industry-funded research, such as pre-trial registration of
study design, full disclosure of funding sources, and minimization of conflicts
of interest among editorial writers. While ACSH claims that at least some
of its papers are peer-reviewed, who reviews which papers using what criteria
is unclear. 

Pseudoscience and Misinformation 

ACSH, a non-profit institution, refers to itself as “a consumer education
consortium” whose board includes “350 physicians, scientists, and policy
advisors—experts in a wide variety of fields.” ACSH claims that its “top
priority is to help Americans distinguish between real and hypothetical
health risks.” However, its mission could be described more appropriately
as misinforming Americans about real and potential, yet serious, health
risks through subverting sound science and obfuscating the truth. ACSH’s
position on a variety of scientific and policy issues can be gleaned from
a review of their website, which contains the following: 

Consistent attacks on the precautionary principle, a fundamental tenet
of public health
. ACSH articles attack the precautionary principle as “an
anti-science and anti-technology phobia,” “fundamentally reactionary and
elitist,” and “more on the order of theology [than science].”Another piece
refers to the precautionary principle as being conceived by the United
Nations, and describes the principle in the following words: “If the risk
of harm cannot be ruled out, then the risky product or activity should
not be permitted.” In fact, the precautionary principle can be defined
as follows: When evidence points toward the potential of an activity to
cause significant, widespread or irreparable harm to public health or the
environment, options for avoiding that harm should be examined and pursued,
even though the harm is not yet fully understood or proven. The principle
involves four essential components: (1) give human and environmental health
the benefit of doubt; (2) include appropriate public participation in the
discussion; (3) gather scientific, technological, and socioeconomic information;
and (4) consider less risky alternatives. 

A piece minimizing the effects of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) on
human health
: “Simply put, the role of ETS in the development of chronic
diseases like cancer and heart disease is uncertain and controversial.”
ETS causes at least 38,000 deaths per year in the United States, according
to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The denial of many of the adverse neurological effects of lead exposure:
“Claims of subtle neurobehavioral effects in children due to elevated blood
lead level are not based on firm evidence.” Even low levels of lead can
cause neurological and damage and developmental delay. 

The pronouncement that there is…no compelling reason to believe that PCBs
exert any biologically significant endocrine-modulating (or hormonal) effect
in humans exposed to realistic environmental levels.” ACSH has also claimed
that “there is insufficient evidence to conclude that environmental PCBs
pose significant health problems through ‘endocrine disruption’ or estrogenic
effects.” These statements are at odds with numerous studies which led
to the international treaty, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Environmental

Dr. Whelans criticism of the EPAs claim that PCBs cause cancer, in which
she calls the EPA’s decision to force General Electric (GE) “to begin removing
traces of the chemicals from the Hudson River” one of the “top ten public
health travesties of 2005.” With 78 Superfund sites nationwide (13 in New
York), GE is America’s largest corporate polluter. Between 1947 and 1977,
two of its capacitor manufacturing plants dumped 1.3 million pounds (“traces”)
of PCBs into the Hudson River. PCBs cause cancer in laboratory animals
and are categorized as probable human carcinogens by the EPA. They also
adversely affect the liver, kidney, nervous, and reproductive organs. 

The statement that “the extent to which the use of antibiotics in animal
agriculture contributes to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance
is uncertain.”
In fact, the World Health Organization has condemned the
use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animals, because of their contribution
to antibiotic-resistant, food-borne human infections. Furthermore, the
CDC has concluded that, in the United States, antimicrobial use in food
animals is the dominant source of antibiotic resistance among food-borne

A declaration that stories claiming that “mercury-laden tuna threatens
the health of women and babies”
and that “meat packaging process (sic)
puts consumers at risk” were among the “biggest unfounded health scares
of the year” in 2006. In fact, multiple studies have proven that the levels
of mercury found in fish at the top of the ocean’s food chain, such as
tuna, do pose a significant health risk for humans of all ages and genders.
ACSH also claims that “questions remain regarding the health effects, if
any, of low levels of methymercury in the diet, particularly among children,
infants, and the developing fetus.” The fact that questions remain is true
of any field of science, as all fields continually evolve with the addition
of new studies. The statement “if any” is contradicted, again, by numerous
studies. Furthermore, outbreaks of E. coli from hamburger, the rise of
food-borne antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, and the discovery
of a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“Mad Cow Disease”)
in the United States last year should be enough to give any consumer pause
regarding the safety of meat processing and packaging in the U.S. 

A critique of the health benefits that could be achieved by removing trans-fatty
acids from the diet.
Dietary trans fatty acids are major contributors to
cardiovascular disease and have no known health benefits. Whelan has made
such outlandish statements as “There is no such thing as junk food,” and
“There is insufficient evidence of a relationship between diet and any

The statement that “dioxin exposures to human populations are without effect.”
Again, this is contradicted by scientific studies. Whelan has claimed that
the U.S. government spends far too much on unproven health risks such as
dioxin and pesticides because of the public’s “unfounded fears of man-made
chemicals and their perception of these chemicals as carcinogens.” 

The pronouncement that for the vast majority of substances that are commonly
referred to as ‘environmental chemicals’ there is not enough supportive
scientific evidence to suggest that children are uniquely susceptible.”
This is patently false for those environmental toxins (the term used by
the majority of scientists as opposed to ACSH’s more benign-sounding term,
which is favored by industry) which have been studied. In fact, fetuses
and children are most vulnerable to environmental toxins for the following
reasons: (1) they experience greater pound-for-pound exposure; (2) their
blood brain barriers are immature and more porous than those of adults;
(3) they possess lower levels of chemical-binding proteins, allowing more
chemicals to reach “target” organs; (4) their organs/organ systems are
rapidly developing, and are thus more vulnerable to damage; (5) their systems
to detoxify and excrete industrial chemicals are not fully developed; (6)
their longer future life span allows more time for adverse effects to arise;
and (7) while breastfeeding, they are literally at the top of the food
chain, due to the concentration of fat soluble substances in breast milk. 

An open letter to policy makers stating, “The use of human volunteers in
pesticide safety studies is vitally important.”
The EPA has banned such
research on pregnant women and children. Furthermore, this practice has
been criticized widely by ethicists and policy makers. 

References to “mercury in tuna and other fish…flame retardant traces found
in blood and breast milk
, PCBs in the Hudson River, diesel exhaust fumes
from school busses, arsenic in drinking water, phthalates in medical devices
and children’s toys,…and lead in blood” as “phony health scares.” This
is irresponsible and unsupported by reams of scientific data. As just one
example, the FDA is concerned enough about the risks of phthalates in medical
devices that it recommended the substitution of non-phthalate-containing
devices whenever possible, particularly in the care of male neonates, pregnant
women who are carrying male fetuses, and peripubertal males. 

The statements irradiated food is safe, wholesome and nutritious” and
“no radioactive isotopes are involved” in the process of food irradiation,
both of which are patently false. 

Global Warming 

With respect to global warming, ACSH gave its 2005 Sound Science award
to Michael Crichton. Crichton’s novel State of Fear conveys two messages,
according to ACSH: (1) “The scientific evidence does not support global
warming fears—or even the occurrence of a significant warming trend”; and
(2) The ironic (and offensive) claim that the “environmental movement and
its well-paid leadership have jumped on the global warming bandwagon because
that’s where the money is.” Dr. Whelan praised Crichton for confronting
“the threat of pseudoscience…in this case, the belief that careless human
activity (the burning of fossil fuels) has made the world too dangerously
warm, causing death-dealing weather changes and human misery.” ACSH has
referred to those who describe the serious health and environmental consequences
of global warming and who call for fossil fuel restrictions as “doomsayers”

and “fearmongers.” 

Attacks on Scientists and the Scientific Enterprise 

ACSH says that it “plays by the rules of science.” ACSH also claims that
it “[does not] make ad hominem attacks.” This is contradicted by postings
on its website referring to members of the environmental movement as “toxic
terrorists.” Furthermore, in a harangue published recently in the usually-unbiased
Skeptical Inquirer, Whelan criticizes Dr. Barry Levy and citizen-activist
Erin Brockovich as “individuals who…pursued self-serving financial opportunities
through litigation.” 

Levy, who has participated as an expert in asbestos-related litigation,
is a past president of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and
widely-respected author and educator, whose career has included work with
the CDC, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the
presidency of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
(winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize). For his many accomplishments, Levy
won the APHA’s most prestigious award, the Sedgwick Medal. Brokovich received
the Harvard School of Public Health’s highest honor, the Julius Richmond
Award for exposing Pacific Gas and Electric’s pollution of California groundwater
with chromium-6, which has been linked to stomach cancer. 

ACSH has a broad media presence and its website attracts large numbers
of individuals (“an average of 100,000 per month for 2005”). Dr. Whelan
has been featured on NBC’s “Today Show,” CNN’s “CNN Live,” and CNBC’s “Business
Insiders.” Editorials by Whelan and Ross have appeared in the New York
and Wall Street Journal, among other major publications. While most
scientists should have no problem seeing through the pseudoscience and
biases of ACSH after even a cursory check of their website and publications,
those unfamiliar with ACSH may be influenced. Furthermore, the lay public
could be seriously misled by their pronouncements, and this could lead
individuals to change their lifestyles and or purchasing habits as a result,
which in turn could cause unnecessary mor- bidity and mortality. 

ACSH and other groups have a track record of silencing scientists and activists
through threats of litigation and SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against
Private Parties, lawsuits which lack merit and rarely make it to trial,
but which are designed to distract, intimidate, and deplete the scientific,
legal, and financial resources of individuals and groups committed to public
health). These tactics, as well as those employed commonly by the pharmaceutical
industry (such as secrecy agreements and the failure to publish data unfavorable
to their products) adversely affect the research, clinical, and public
health work of respected scientists and health care professionals. Such
groups’ faulty pronouncements influence our elected officials. Threats
of litigation divert the valuable time of health care providers, editors,
and legal departments away from their more productive missions of research,
teaching, writing, and patient care. Such a diversion of time and intellectual
resources constitutes scientific harassment, and is meant to silence those
who advocate sound science. Such threats can have a chilling effect on
scientists and health care advocates, who may decide that it is wiser to
avoid conflict than publish content to which ACSH and other such groups
would potentially object. 

Today, U.S. public science education curricula are increasingly corporate-sponsored.
The current Administration has altered the reports of scientific regulatory
bodies and made appointments to scientific committees based more on political
and religious ideology and on business connections than on academic credentials.
In such an environment, it is critical for professional and lay publications
to expose the workings of groups like ACSH and for scientists to fight
back against such groups’ harassment. 


Martin Donohoe is an MD in Internal Medicine at Kaiser Sunnyside Medical
Center and an adjunct lecturer for the Department of Community Health.
He is also a member of the board of advisors of Oregon Physicians for Social
Responsibility. For the record, he receives no industry funding for his