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November 24, 2008

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Integrity in Science Watch

Week of 11/24/2008

Dow Wields Its Science to Attack Pesticide Ban

The recent controversy surrounding bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor, pitted science backed by industry against science backed by government and non-profit groups. Now, in another case of dueling experiments, Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, is wielding industry-funded studies to challenge an effort by Quebec Province to ban the pesticide 2, 4-D, which independent researchers say causes both cancer and neurological and reproductive problems. "The actions of the government of Quebec are tantamount to a blanket ban based on non-scientific criteria," Jim Wispinski, president and CEO of Dow AgroSciences told Canadian Press.

The company based its appeal on a section in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that prohibits local, state, or provincial governments from circumventing national decisions. Health Canada has ruled that 2, 4-D is safe when used according to its label. Canadian environmental groups, on the other hand, claim Quebec conducted extensive public consultations and research before enacting the ban. Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the chemical in the U.S.

The Dow petition relied on more than 300 studies paid for by an industry task force comprised of Dow AgroSciences, Australian-based Nufarm Ltd, and Agro-Gor, all of which produce the chemical. It is demanding $2 million in compensation from Quebec. The pesticide 2, 4-D was used to produce Agent Orange, widely used during the Vietnam War, and is still a $300 million-a-year market.

EPA Report Downplayed Fracking Risk

A 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study on the risks of hydraulic fracturing (sometimes called fracking) downplayed the dangers the process posed to groundwater, according to a study by ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism news agency. The EPA study led to a congressional exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The process, pioneered by Halliburton, involves shooting pressurized water, sand and chemicals into buried natural gas deposits, blasting apart rock and releasing natural gas. Of the more than 300 chemicals that may be used, at least 65 are known to be toxic, private researchers and the Bureau of Land Management say. Halliburton refuses to disclose what chemicals it uses, citing the need to protect company trade secrets. According to ProPublica, the 424-page EPA report emerged after the agency negotiated directly with the gas industry. The report admits that fracturing fluids may cause kidney, liver, heart, brain, and blood damage, but concludes that "the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coalbed methane wells poses little or no threat to [drinking water] and does not justify additional study at this time."

Glaxo Tried to Intimidate Doctors Over Med

GlaxoSmithKline attempted to stifle and intimidate physicians who initially expressed concerns that the diabetes drug Avandia was linked to higher risk of heart attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported. As early as 2000 a Maryland doctor linked the drug to congestive heart failure. The company responded by asking the hospital's chief physician to keep that physician from talking about it with other doctors at the hospital.

In a related matter, in 2007 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that concluded that the drug could raise the risk of heart of attacks by 43 percent. Even though the drug remains on the market, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Finance committee, is investigating allegations that one of NEJM's peer reviewers leaked the study to the company. A report is expected soon.

Who's Watching the Watchdogs?

Citing growing ties between medical journalists and the companies they cover, medical journalism came under fire in the current issue of the British Medical Journal (subscription required). Authors Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin of Dartmouth and BMJ associate editor Ray Moynihan offered examples like Glaxo Wellcome and Pfizer funding an endowed chair and scholarships at the University of North Carolina's journalism school; drug industry sponsorship of the American Medical Writers Association; and industry-financed prizes of up to $10,000 for best reporting on urinary incontinence (Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingleheim), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (Boehringer Ingleheim) and obesity (Roche). The authors called for eliminating health care company funding from journalism education; ending industry-funded journalism prizes; and mandatory disclosure when health care companies fund reporting trips.

In addition, the latest in a series of investigations by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) revealed that Frederick Goodwin, host of National Public Radio's "The Infinite Mind", earned at least $1.3 million between 2000 and 2007 giving marketing lectures for drug makers. The psychiatrist/radio host, who is also a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, did not disclose to his listeners that he had the connection to industry, and he said in a New York Times article last week that the program's producer, Bill Lichtenstein, had been made aware of the funding but didn't think that "getting money from drug companies could be an issue." Lichtenstein reportedly denied this assertion saying it would have violated their agreements. NPR officals said the show will be removed from satellite radio this week.

Odds and Ends

Medical device scientists at the Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to Congress accusing senior health officials at the agency of ignoring their concerns and approving unsafe devices, the New York Times reported.... A Rutgers University study reveals that many researchers receiving NIH grants for studies on human sexuality made changes to their subsequent proposals after becoming the subject of controversy. The study is available here after 8 p.m. EST.... The 160 countries that ratified the global tobacco treaty will determine the extent that the treaty and related public health policies are influenced by the tobacco industry, Corporate Accountability International reported.... A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel study showed that products labeled as "microwave safe" may leach the plasticizer BPA into food contents when warmed. The newspaper broke the story a year ago that said the National Toxicology Program had relied excessively on industry-funded studies to arrive at its conclusion that the chemical was safe. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA)and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said they will seek to ban the material from food packaging materials.... Congressional Democrats may try to block implementation of changes to the Endangered Species Act and other Bush Administration midnight regulations by using a rarely-used parliamentary maneuver, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reports.

Cheers and Jeers

  • Cheer to Linda Johnson of the Associated Press for disclosing that a study on the cost of diabetes was paid for by Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk. The study puts the cost of diabetes in 2007 at $218 billion in the U.S. alone.

  • Jeer to Roni Caryn Rabin of the New York Times for failing to disclose that the University of Virginia's Steven DeKosky, the primary investigator in a study showing ginkgo biloba is ineffective in treating dementia, has financial ties to GlaxoSmithKline, which last year launched a $18.3 million program with the government of Ireland to research new therapies to treat Alzheimer's Disease.

    Corrections and Clarifications

    The Sept. 2, 2008 issue of Integrity in Science Watch incorrectly linked Robert Freedman, editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry, to a financial disclosure for Robert R. Freedman, a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Michigan. We apologize for the error.

    That same issue and story reported that Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief of Psychiatric Times, received education grants or consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Pies reports that he has received no money from the drug industry in the past 18 months, which coincides with his tenure as editor. While Integrity in Science Watch uses a five-year look-back period for reporting conflicts of interest and believes these relationships should have been disclosed to readers of Psychiatric Times, the use of the present tense in the story was incorrect. We apologize for the error.

    The Nov. 17, 2008 issue of Integrity in Science Watch contained an incorrect link to an EPA Scientific Advisory Board warning letter on perchlorate. We apologize for any confusion that may have caused.