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OLD TRICKS, by Paul Brodeur and Bill Ravanesi

December 10, 1997

Can The New England Journal of Medicine be up to some old and long-discredited tricks, and can it be up to these tricks with a long-discredited company such as W.R. Grace?

In a review of Sandra Steingraber's book "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment," which appeared in the Journal (Vol. 337, No. 21, Nov. 20, 1997), Jerry H. Berke, who is identified as an M.D., M.P.H. living in Acton, Massachusetts, accuses Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., of having produced a "biased work" for daring to suggest that (a) we are in the midst of a cancer epidemic, and that (b) chemical residues and pesticides in food and drinking water are probably more to blame for the recent steep increase in the incidence of cancer than AIDS, improved diagnostic techniques, and so-called life-style factors, such as fatty diet and cigarette smoking.

To support his argument, Dr. Berke cites the findings of just one study--a 1995 investigation published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute by Dr. Susan Devesa and some colleagues at the National Cancer Institute, who compared cancer incidence in the five-year period from 1975-1979 with the period 1987-1991, and declared that the increased incidence of 18.6% among males and 12.4% among females could be largely ascribed to known factors, such as better detection, AIDS, smoking, and exposure to sun, and not to environmental causes.

Dr. Berke goes on to cite the conclusions of an accompanying editorial co-authored by Dr. Philip Cole, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama (and a long-time paid consultant of the electric utility industry), who warns that a casual interpretation of cancer statistics can "lead the unwary to see a rise in cancer where none has occurred," and to assume that "this rise was due to environmental contamination."

Dr. Berke chooses not to quote Dr. Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., one of Devesa's co-authors and a former director of the epidemiological and biostatistics program at the National Cancer Institute, who told Jane Brody of The New York Times that environmental factors might be involved in the increases found in cancer of the brain, liver, testicles, kidney, and breast.

Dr. Berke does not mention the fact that only about one-third of the sharp increase in Non-Hodgkins lymphoma--the cancer of the immune system that killed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis--can be ascribed to AIDS (as Berke asserts) and organ transplantation, for the simple reason that far and away the steepest increase in this disease has occurred among people 60 and older, which is an age group least affected by AIDS and less likely to undergo organ transplant surgery.

Apparently, Dr. Berke is unaware that a 1990 study conducted by Devra Lee Davis, then a professor at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, and published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, found that the incidence of brain cancer in people under the age of 45 had increased 2% a year from 1973-1988. Another study by Davis published in The Lancet, the world-renowned British medical journal, found that the incidence of cancer of all types has risen sharply during the previous 20 years among people 55 or older in the United States, Japan, and four European nations.

Dr. Berke must somehow have missed seeing the story that ran on September 29, 1997, on the front page of The New York Times and in most of the nation's other leading newspapers about a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute showing that the rate of increase in the incidence of cancer among the nation's children is nearly 1% a year. Acute lymphocytic leukemia among boys and girls increased 27% between 1973 and 1990. Brain cancer among children increased nearly 40% during the same period.

Apparently, Dr. Berke is unaware that in 1997 the American Cancer Society issued a report stating that one out of every two American men will develop cancer in his lifetime, and that one out of every three American women will develop cancer in her lifetime.

No cancer epidemic? One out of every two American men? One out of every three American women? What planet is Dr. Berke living on? Would he use the phrase influenza epidemic if one out of every two American men and one out of every three American women were developing in his or her lifetime a potentially fatal strain of influenza? Does he perhaps believe that the dramatic increase in cancer among children has occurred because they've suddenly begun to eat badly or are going to the doctor more frequently? Can he have succumbed to the quaint notion offered by some members of the medical community that the sharp increases in cancer among Americans are occurring because people are living longer--in this case, because children are living longer?

"The increases [in the incidence of childhood cancer] are too rapid to reflect genetic changes, and better diagnostic detection is not a likely explanation," Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician who directs the division of environmental medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told the Times in September. (Dr. Landrigan is also senior adviser to the new office of children's health at the E.P.A.) "The strong probability exists that environmental factors are playing a role," Dr. Landrigan added.

According to the report in the Times, Landrigan and other experts "are inclined to examine the estimated 75,000 new synthetic chemicals introduced in the last half century, the emissions from cars, the pesticides in foods and in neighborhoods, the runoff in drinking water--the whole collection of chemicals out there, mostly untested for toxicity to humans, let alone for possible cancerous effects in children."

As a result of the recent data on childhood cancer, Carol M. Browner, the administrator of the E.P.A., is undertaking a new research program that will move beyond the chemical-by-chemical approach of the past and instead investigate a child's total cumulative risk from all exposure to toxic chemicals.

Dr. Lynn R. Goldman, the assistant administrator of the E.P.A. for pesticides and toxic substances, said that scientists lack even basic toxicity data for most of the Agency's list of 3,000 industrial chemicals produced in the highest volumes each year--many of them found in consumer products and in the workplace.

So who is Jerry H. Berke and why is he so anxious to convince the readers of The New England Journal of Medicine that (a) there is no cancer epidemic, and (b) it can't possibly be related to exposure to toxic chemicals and pesticides in the environment?

Dr. Berke is the Director of Medicine and Toxicology for W. R. Grace & Company, of New York City, one of the nation's largest chemical manufacturers.

W. R. Grace is the company whose renegade conduct is so powerfully described in the best-selling book "A Civil Action," which is now being made into a major motion picture starring John Travolta.

W. R. Grace is the company that was found responsible in a 1986 jury trial of contaminating drinking water supplies in Woburn, Massachusetts, by pouring trichloroethylene--a known chemical carcinogen--into an open ditch on company property that led directly to a brook.

W. R. Grace is the company that subsequently paid $8 million to settle claims brought by the families of seven Woburn children and one adult who developed leukemia after drinking water that was shown to be contaminated with the chemicals dumped by the company.

W. R. Grace is the company that pleaded guilty to two felony counts of lying to the EPA about the chemicals it had dumped into the ground in Woburn, and paid the maximum fine of $10,000 for having done so.

W. R. Grace, also a leading manufacturer of asbestos-containing building products, has been a defendant in several thousand asbestos property-damage lawsuits brought by municipalities and building owners.

W. R. Grace is a founder of the Safe Buildings Alliance, which was organized to help defend Grace and co-defendant asbestos-products manufacturers in such litigation. In 1987, the United States District Court of Pennsylvania ruled that information disseminated by the Safe Buildings Alliance was "misleading as to its objectivity and neutrality" and that this information was used in an attempt to convince as many [building owners] as possible to "forgo the removal of asbestos from their buildings." The court further found that the Safe Buildings Alliance was formed with the intent of reducing the sponsors' liability for the hazards created by asbestos in buildings."

In a noteworthy trial conducted in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1986, a court fined W.R. Grace $4.8 million in compensatory damages and $2 million punitive damages for selling the City of Greenville asbestos-containing fireproofing material to be used in the construction of its city hall even after Grace had removed asbestos from the same product for sale elsewhere in the country as a result of pressure from public health authorities who told Grace that the asbestos posed a major health hazard.

So much for W. R. Grace. Now, how about The New England Journal of Medicine?

On July 29, 1989, the Journal published an article (Vol. 320, No. 26) that was co-written by Brooke T. Mossman, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Vermont, and Dr. J. Bernard L. Gee, a professor of pulmonary medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. In their article, Mossman and Gee claimed incorrectly that chrysotile asbestos--a type of the mineral widely used in buildings in the United States--was less harmful to inhale than other types of asbestos, and that there was no need to spend public money to remove the huge quantities of asbestos (some 30 million tons)that had been installed in buildings throughout the nation.

Nowhere in the article was there any mention of the fact that Mossman had served as a paid consultant on matters relating to asbestos to a major asbestos-products manufacturer, the Owens Corning Fiberglas Company, of Toledo, Ohio, or that Gee had not only been a paid consultant of Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., of Bridgeport, Connecticut--a major asbestos manufacturer and defendant in asbestos lawsuits--but had also testified in behalf of asbestos companies in lawsuits brought by disabled workers suffering from asbestos disease.

This omission seemed curious in light of the Journal's own publicly stated rules, which not only required authors to "disclose any commercial association that might pose a conflict of interest in connection with the submitted article," but also declared that "if the manuscript is accepted, the Editor will discuss with the authors how best to disclose the relevant information."

Six months later, in response to a letter to the editor from a physician who raised the question of their conflict of interest, Mossman and Gee revealed that they had, indeed, disclosed their outside activities to the Journal's editors. This revelation was followed by a two-sentence editor's note that spoke volumes about the Journal's attitude at that time toward conflict of interest. It read as follows: "Drs. Mossman and Gee did disclose to us their public, governmental, and legal activities before publication of their article. We kept their disclosure on file but chose not to publish it."

On January 17, 1991, The New England Journal of Medicine published a letter that was highly critical of the conclusions of Mossman and Gee regarding the hazard of inhaling chrysotile asbestos. This letter was signed by sixteen medical doctors (including three physicians from the Harvard School of Public Health), who represented 7 occupational health clinics across the nation, as well as by representatives of 22 other occupational health clinics in the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics.

As a result of the criticism leveled against the obvious conflict of interest on the part of Mossman and Gee, the Journal announced a significant change in policy: in the future, it would publish articles only by authors who had no financial stake in the subjects they wrote about.

Apparently, Dr. Marcia Angell, the executive editor of the Journal, together with her colleagues there, have decided to ignore this pledge. In 1996, they published an editorial endorsing an anti-obesity drug that was written by two researchers with obvious conflicts of interest. One of them was a paid consultant of the firm that manufactured the drug; the other was a paid consultant of companies that were marketing it.

An editorial in the Boston Sunday Globe on September 1, 1996, which ran under the headline "Malpractice at a medical journal?", declared that Angell and her staff "clearly should have known" about the conflict of interest of at least one of the researchers, who had disclosed in writing in an earlier article in the Journal that she was a consultant for the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the drug.

Now, coming full circle, we return to the review of Sandra Steingraber's book by Jerry H. Berke, M.D., M.P.H., who is allowed to describe himself in the Journal as living in Acton, Massachusetts, but not as being employed as Director of Medicine and Toxicology by W. R. Grace & Company.

Members of the Massachusetts Medical Society, who are the publishers of The New England Journal of Medicine, not to mention the Journal's 230,000 readers, may not only wish to inquire why Angell and her colleagues have chosen to keep editorial company with a writer who so ostentatiously carries the chemical industry's polluted water, but also why they have chosen to allow him to remain anonymous in their prestigious pages.


(See related articles)

No editorial changes can be made without the permission of the authors.

Paul Brodeur North Truro, Massachusetts

(In the interest of disclosure, the writer wishes to declare that he was a staff writer at The New Yorker between 1958 and 1996, and that he is the author of three books about the occupational and environmental hazards of exposure to asbestos, the contents of which appeared originally as articles in The New Yorker.)

Bill Ravanesi,MA, MPH Newton, Massachusetts,

(Photojournalist, producer & editor of the documentary "Breath Taken: The Landscape & Biography of Asbestos".)

© 1997, 1998 Paul Brodeur/ Bill Ravanesi

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