One day alcohol is bad for you, the next, a glass of red wine is healthy. We are told too much sugar is bad, but an outcry results with any challenge to our sweet drinks.
Who to believe?
Believe if there’s a profit to be made it will be made, whether it’s good for you or not.
David Michaels, President Obama’s 2009-2017 Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), recounts the self-perpetuating corporate fronts that defend the indefensible in The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.
Learning from the tobacco industry in the 1960s, there’s an ambitious industry that challenges science, obscures facts and ties up the regulatory process to stop hazardous substance controls.
Their names are innocuous and scientific sounding – in actuality, they exist to protect profits, not health. The Center for Indoor Air Research (tobacco), the American Center for Science and Health (Teflon), the Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries Committee (football) or the American Pain Foundation (oxycontin) are all industry-funded groups to delay regulation or to obscure and challenge scientific data with incomplete studies.
The ultimate goal is continued profit. If there is a challenge or a safety concern raised, industry PR fronts will not directly confront the facts, but instead, create organizations to challenge science, often without substantiating their claims.
Silica concrete dust, which can damage lungs, was a known workplace hazard almost a century ago. Michaels spent most of his OSHA tenure helping finalize a 35-year-old mandate to update the silica standard. In 2011, OSHA scientists completed a 437 page study of silica’s health effects and laid out a new standard.
Labor unions testified in support as did some industries, like the National Asphalt Pavement Association. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that the standards were too expensive and the American Chemistry Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Home Builders testified against them, claiming the costs would outweigh the benefits (in human lives).
In September 2017, eight years after beginning this effort, the new OSHA standards were legally upheld. As Michaels notes:
“The new standards went into effect in September 2017. …Two years into the new silica standard, new inexpensive construction tools with vacuum or wetting devices are flying off the shelves and are now standard equipment on construction sites. Small contractors discovered that meeting the new requirements were far easier and less expensive than they had been told by their scare mongering trade associations. I have not seen one iota of evidence that these small additional costs resulted in any layoffs or appreciable rises in housing prices. And in a few years, everyone will have forgotten that the only reason power tools on construction sites have vacuum attachments, and silica no longer threatens worker health, was the standard OSHA issued in 2016.”
This personal battle to win silica protection is the lonely bright spot in Michaels’ chronicle of corporate cover-up. Like the asbestos industry learning the hazards in the 1930s, some industry will long cover-up, obfuscate and deny hazards to maintain the bottom line.
The lawsuits, the ruined lives, the health problems will come later. The Triumph of Doubt is a fact-based reminder that scientific data deserves respect. Consumers and elected representatives need a wary eye toward industry front groups the sow doubt and evade evidence.
The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception
By David Michaels
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-092266-5 $27
Book review by Mike Matejka