Pollution Pt 2: Contaminated Research

Episode Summary

In our second episode on pollution, investigative journalist Carey Gillam joins Kate and Luigi to discuss her new book "Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science." Gillam reveals how pesticide companies secretly influence scientific research and avoid EPA regulations.

Episode Notes

In our second episode on pollution, investigative journalist Carey Gillam joins Kate and Luigi to discuss her new book "Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science." Gillam reveals how pesticide companies secretly influence scientific research and avoid EPA regulations.

Episode Transcription

Kate: Hi, this is Kate Waldock from Georgetown University.

Luigi: And this is Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago.

Kate: You’re listening to Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what’s working in capitalism today.

Luigi: And most importantly, what isn’t.

Kate: The is the second part of a two-part episode on pollution and the deleterious effects that it can have on your health. Last week we talked about air pollution, and we talked also about a pollutant called C8 or PFOA, which can show up in the ground, as well as in the air.

On this week’s episode, we want to continue that conversation, and Luigi actually stumbled across a pretty cool NBER working paper that just came out, about the effect of kids living or going to school near highways. Luigi, do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Luigi: Yes. This is a fascinating new study that exploits the different exposures that schools have to the pollution generated by traffic, and compares the achievement of students that are near highways versus the ones that are distant from the highways, and finds that the performance is significantly lower when they are close to a highway, because of—and this is what they claim—because of the pollution that they get.

Kate: Yeah, one thing that I thought was cool about this paper is that the way that they measure the effect of being close to a highway on academic achievement, is that they look within a certain range of distances away from a highway. So, let’s say you’re limiting yourselves to schools that are only exactly 100 feet away from a highway. Then, they compare not only the differences between academic achievements in those schools, but they compare kids who moved from one school to another. 

And they’re also able to observe wind patterns of these highways. So, you’ve got two schools that are equidistant from the highway. One of them is getting a lot of pollutants being pushed to them from the wind, and the other is having the pollutants pushed in the opposite direction from the wind. When kids move from the school that’s in the opposite direction from the wind to the school that’s downwind from the highway, they actually end up doing worse, in terms of their test-taking abilities, as well as their presence at school.

Luigi: Of course, what Kate is saying is very important, because simply the closeness to highways could be a proxy for a lot of other conditions, including the socioeconomic status of the people going to school, and so, by itself, would not prove the link with pollution. But when you go and look at people who move, then you can determine better the directional causality.

Kate: Yeah, actually, I moved when I was a senior in high school, from an area that was super far away from a highway to an area that was right next to a highway. I was maybe 100 feet away from it, and I did a lot worse in school the year that I moved. But I think it was mostly because I was a senior in high school and mostly interested in partying, rather than going to school, so maybe that was the confounding factor.

By the way, that paper was by Heissel, Persico, and Simon, and is called “Does Pollution Drive Achievement? The Effect of Traffic Pollution on Academic Performance.”

Luigi: OK. Moving to today’s episode, we want to look at, number one, another form of pollution, the pollution that reaches the food we eat. But, most importantly, we want to expand the conversation about the research that is supposed to protect us against these potential toxic substances, and to what extent this research is doing a good job, to what extent it is not. 

There is no better person to help us in this conversation than Carey Gillam. She’s an investigative journalist. She worked at Reuters for a long time, and she wrote a very topical and timely book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science. Welcome to the show, Carey.

Carey Gillam: Thanks for having me.

Kate: Carey, do you want to start off by telling us what inspired you to write this book?

Carey Gillam: I was a reporter for Reuters for about 17 years. Reuters is an international news agency. Prior to my assignment to cover food and agriculture, I had covered the banking industry. But there was a lot going on in modern agriculture in the mid-1990s, and Reuters asked me to move to Kansas and start writing about the changes that were coming about with the introduction of genetically modified seeds and the pesticides that were used with them. Twenty years later, I’ve written Whitewash, which is a really sort of deep dive into what I call a pesticide-dependent food system, and what the science shows us that that is doing to our health and to the environment. I say it’s not a feel-good story, but it certainly is one I think is important for everyone to read.

Luigi: The regulation of pesticides in the United States is done by the EPA, right?

Carey Gillam: The Environmental Protection Agency, correct. There’s an Office of Pesticide Programs within the EPA that specifically their job is to regulate pesticides.

Luigi: If I am a chemical company, and I want to introduce a new product, what do I have to do to sell my product to the farmer in Kansas?

Carey Gillam: In the case of pesticides, the EPA asks for a whole assortment of different tests. Animal tests, toxicology tests, that look at dermal absorption, that look at how these chemicals impact your eyes, for instance, if they create eye irritation, skin irritation, if there are any acute dangers, hazards. There was one particular pesticide used in agriculture called paraquat, and we know that if you get a little bit on your tongue accidentally, if a little bit splashes up and you ingest that, you’re probably going to be dead in two or three weeks.

Luigi: In two or three weeks?

Carey Gillam: In two or three weeks, so these are the things that regulators want to know about. They rely very heavily on the companies to provide the data, the tests, that say whether these things are safe or not.

Kate: Why do you think the regulators rely so heavily on the companies? I mean, can the companies be trusted? Wouldn’t you expect the companies to say, “Oh, our product is good”?

Carey Gillam: A lot of people refer to this as the fox-in-the-henhouse type of situation. Yes, in a perfect world, we would love to have all of the money to plug into independent scientists who can do both short-term and long-term studies on all of these pesticides. But in the world we live in, that just doesn’t happen. The type of experiments that are done, the type of studies that are done, are very expensive, in many cases. What you really like to see is long-term studies. The companies are the ones that are going to be making the billions of dollars in revenue, so they’re the ones who are willing to put up the sometimes millions of dollars that it costs to do these studies in the first place. So, this is how it comes about. Our EPA, our government, does not provide the funding for the EPA to do studies. We rely on the companies to a large extent and then independent scientists as well.

Luigi: This is not that different from drugs, right? The FDA is requiring the pharmaceutical companies to do the studies, and then to decide whether this is safe and effective or not. It’s very different from the other chemical substances, because other toxic substances are introduced without any screening, unless they’ve proven otherwise.

Carey Gillam: Right. I mean, there are tens of thousands of chemicals that are in our environment, that we are exposed to on a daily basis, that really, there is very little testing that has been done on those.

Luigi: But one thing, at least I understood from your book, is that in many of these situations, the problem is not only or necessarily the substance per se, but also the interaction the substance has with other stuff in the environment. So, to what extent can these studies even be done? Because if this stuff is bad for everybody, it’s relatively easy to catch. But if it is bad in certain conditions, or in combination with certain soils that are impossible to detect—

Carey Gillam: Yeah. I mean, definitely, the acute reactions of course, like paraquat, as I mentioned earlier, that’s pretty easy to determine. And farmers use it. It is something that farmers use, but they’re aware of the risks. There are a lot of very detailed warnings and things like that, so farmers can be aware of that. But it’s this chronic sort of exposure that we really don’t seem to know very much about. And, as you said, the interactions with other chemicals and other classes of contaminants, and the multi-levels of exposure, because you have dermal exposure, inhalation exposure, but you also have dietary. So, you’re getting these chemicals in your food and in your drinking water.

Luigi: And here I would like to make a distinction, because very often it’s not done. And maybe I’m too much of an economist here, but there is the cost-benefit analysis from the point of view of the farmer. The farmer takes a risk in using various pesticides and makes profits by using these pesticides. But then this stuff ends up in our food, without any choice. So, I think that there is what we call in economics an externality, which is pretty big. This is where the government should intervene in evaluating that externality, because we were talking about C8 in the last episode. C8 is shown to reduce fertility in men. That’s a pretty severe issue.

Carey Gillam: It is. I mean, I focus a lot of the work I do on Monsanto and glyphosate. Glyphosate because it’s the most widely used herbicide in the world, and it’s so pervasive. But of course, as you pointed out, it’s by no means the only thing that we have to be concerned about out there: C8, PFOA. Chlorpyrifos is a very popular insecticide that has made a lot of money for Dow Chemical. Their science has shown it to be just fine. Independent science has shown that it causes neurodevelopmental damage to children who are exposed to it.

The science is so strong, and there’s such a consensus on this science among the independent science community, that it’s been banned from household use. They convinced the EPA to ban it. It was supposed to be banned from agriculture in 2017. They finally convinced the Obama administration, the weight of science, that this stuff that the government had told us was so safe for so long in our food and our water, now the weight of science has said, “Yeah, you know what? We were wrong.” So the government, the EPA, decided to go ahead and ban it.

Then the Trump administration came in, and Dow Chemical sat down with the new administration and gave $1 million to the Trump inaugural fund, and the ban went away. So, when you talk about science, you really do need to understand there’s so many different political ramifications, profit agendas, behind these things. It seems like public health and public good take a backseat quite often to these other issues.

Kate: I want to talk more about the role of big money in politics, big ag money. But first, I want to go back. So, last year Luigi and I did a podcast episode about the opioid crisis. We talked about the ways that big pharma was able to influence doctors by holding these very fancy conferences and giving away all of this swag, and making them feel wined and dined, and convincing them to prescribe their drugs. It sounds like there’s a lot of this going on in the ag industry as well.

Also, something that seems to happen is that if the carrot doesn’t work, there seems to be some of the stick. So, if farmers aren’t sold by marketing efforts of these big agriculture companies, then there’s actually cases of bullying and intense pressure put on them to use certain products. Can you tell us a little bit about how this works?

Carey Gillam: Well, one good example that we saw in the early 2000s was in the US, wheat farmers. Wheat farmers didn’t use a lot of Roundup. There is no genetically modified wheat like genetically altered corn and soybeans that are designed to be sprayed right over the top with Roundup. The same thing didn’t exist in wheat, and Monsanto really wanted to introduce a Roundup-ready wheat, so that they could sell a specialty patented seed to wheat farmers, and that the farmers would then spray the wheat with Monsanto’s Roundup.

I went to all of these meetings and watched this unfold, and they put a lot of pressure on them. They tried to apply funding to different groups and organizations, or take it away from others, and get their own people to head up wheat industry boards. Export markets were very upset and said, “We’re not going to buy wheat from the US if this gets rolled out.” It was a very, very big fight. Through it all, the farmers kept saying to Monsanto, “We don’t want it.” Monsanto kept saying, “Too bad, you’re going to get it.”

In the end, there was so much publicity about this that Monsanto did go ahead and say that it would shelve the company’s Roundup-ready wheat. So, it still hasn’t introduced it, but they tried awfully hard to shove it down the throats of farmers for a very long time.

Luigi: This is the part I would like to discuss now, because I think something that maybe as economists we’re less willing to accept or recognize is how much the process of research might be distorted by standard economic incentives, but in a way that makes it difficult to know the facts. Monsanto can be very politically influential and decide what is the right tradeoff. But at least if we had gotten the facts right, people could somehow object to it.

The problem is that, it seems to me, we don’t even know the facts. So, what I would like to discuss and would like to start with you, Carey, if you can sort of tell us what you learned in your research about how academic research is affected. Because the typical economist will say, “Look, there are two sides of every issue. There is a reward to tout each side. Why shouldn’t we expect that, on average, the truth prevails?”

Carey Gillam: I think what we’re seeing is that on average, money prevails. If you’re talking specifically about academics and professors, and scientists who are working at different universities and are doing research, and trying to share that with the public, what we’ve seen over many, many years is that, increasingly, big corporations are funneling money to these research programs, many millions of dollars in many cases. Even though it’s not supposed to affect the research, we do see them stepping in to sway or to direct the research. We know that there’s pressure, and we—

Luigi: Can you elaborate on this? Because even in economics, there are a lot of people that finance research. We think that they are kept at bay, they don’t have any influence, et cetera. So, what is your best evidence that, actually, this financing matters dramatically to the results?

Carey Gillam: Well, I guess there are many. There’s some laid out in the book. You can look at the University of Florida, for instance, or the University of Illinois, or the University of Nebraska, or around the United States, and they also engage in this activity, we know, in Europe. But again, I’m going back to Monsanto, this has been my main path that I’ve written about, is how they’ve done this. Funneling to a university, and identifying a particular professor who works in the area of science that is beneficial to them, and directing that professor to do this research or to make these policy statements. To go and hold classes or seminars or lectures, and in many cases Monsanto would provide the PowerPoints, provide the narrative, provide the talking points that this person is to deliver on their behalf.

Now, that’s a pretty extreme example, but it’s one that we saw in the documents that we obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and state records requests. We’ve seen the correspondence, and we see the money flow, and you see how they talk about hiding the money flow. At the University of Nebraska, there was a professor who used to work at Monsanto, but he went to the University of Nebraska to run a food program that looked at the allergenicity of food, and to really study this, because, of course, so many people are afflicted with food allergies. But what we find in all the documents is that his program was being funded by the big corporations who wanted to make sure that he didn’t find any allergenicity problems in products that were connected to them. You see the correspondence, and you see him very worried about making sure he keeps them happy so he keeps funding to his research program. This is just repeated over and over and over.

Kate: Yeah, I would like to see, and I’m sure this exists, but I’m just not aware of it, a large-scale study across all different fields that observes the relationship between receiving funding from an organization and scientists’ findings that are in line with the view of that organization. It would just be interesting. If you did this across all fields, and then within the field, and then looked at different interactions and the extent that results were aligned. But anyway, one anecdote that I liked from your book, I think there was a story about a guy who was being funded for some research, and the company that was funding him, when referring to the research findings, said, “Oh, they’re going to say this,” before the research study was actually done. Am I . .  .did that happen?

Carey Gillam: Yeah. I mean, they know what they want it to say, and they’re going to direct that. We’ve seen that, again, in many cases. This gets also into ghostwriting. I mean, we saw in documents that were obtained through state record requests, professors at different universities who were lined up, and they were essentially assigned to write specific papers that would say specific things. They were given the assignments. They were given the points that were supposed to be covered in their papers. One of the main things was they didn’t want anybody to know the company was behind it, because these papers were going to promote, essentially, policies that would benefit this company. Every single one of the professors did as they were told, without stating the backing of these companies.

Luigi: I found something in your book that, to me, was even more offensive. Apparently, there is an email from one Monsanto executive that told colleagues in February 2015 that they could ghostwrite research material, and that certain independent scientists from outside the company would just edit and sign their names, so to speak, just as they had done it with a 2000 study.

Carey Gillam: Yeah. I mean, these are the things that have come out through Freedom of Information and through litigation discovery documents. We’re seeing, in particular with Monsanto, which has been in the news a lot, discussions internally in the company about how they ghostwrite papers, ghostwrite scientific literature. We know, for instance, in this email that you’re referring to, this illuminates us on two different papers. One, Monsanto refers in that email to ghostwriting a paper authored by scientists Williams, Kroes, and Munro in the year 2000. That paper found just complete safety, no reason to be concerned about glyphosate whatsoever, and that paper has been foundational to regulatory reviews around the world. The EPA and every regulator have cited this as evidence that we should not be concerned.

We now know that Monsanto considers that they ghostwrote that. They were talking about ghostwriting a new set of papers, and, in fact, those papers were published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology. The title of the papers was “A Review of Glyphosate by an Independent Panel.” In the declaration of interest, it said, “No Monsanto employee nor Monsanto attorney has reviewed these papers,” when, in fact, the emails show us a very in-depth discussion by Monsanto’s top scientists about what they’ve already written, what they’ve drafted, what they’re changing, what they’re editing. In their own internal emails, they’re trying to decide what independent scientist’s name is going to go on the paper that this Monsanto scientist has just written. Those papers got published, but this is just one example of things that we know have gone on for decades.

Luigi: So, let’s start to try to think about solutions. In your book, you mention a pretty straightforward one, which is to say, “Why don’t we tax the people who introduce pesticides, and with that money we fund independent research?”

Carey Gillam: Yeah, and actually that sort of idea and that movement is going forward to a certain degree. I think people would like to see more of that. They would like to see the companies really have to fund a very robust system of research that would, in fact, be truly independent. We’re not anywhere close to that at this point. But it’s something that people are talking about, and companies are having to kick in for the new requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act, so we’ll see. That’s one idea.

Luigi: But that is a lovely idea, in my view. But it does raise the issue, who is really independent?

Carey Gillam: Again, yes.

Luigi: Because it’s very easy to determine if you work for Monsanto, you’re not independent. But if you work for an NGO that’s trying to fight pesticides, are you independent, not independent?

Carey Gillam: In theory, I mean, our government scientists should be independent. Our government scientists who work for the EPA are independent. They should be working for the public, so it would be ideal to have enough money and enough resources for these scientists to truly do the kind of work that would be revelatory. But what we’ve seen, as I said, in the past what we’ve seen is, even when they are analyzing research, if it doesn’t comport with what the chemical companies want, these scientists just get stomped on.

Kate: Carey, in the spirit of independent research and disclosure, I think we would be remiss if we didn’t ask you about the organizations that you’re affiliated with and the funding for those organizations. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Carey Gillam: I left Reuters at the end of 2015, and in early 2016 set about writing the book and also doing research for this nonprofit called US Right to Know. It formed, I think, in 2014. It’s very small, very new, very young. It was started with some seed money, no pun intended, I guess, or maybe, from the Organic Consumers Association, which, again, is another nonprofit and is a consumer group, not to be confused with the Organic Trade Association, which is made up of organic companies. Organic Consumers Association is aimed at trying to defend and uphold the integrity of the organic standard, and, of course, educate consumers. But they’re just one funder over time. The last time I checked, the largest donor this year was the Arnold Foundation, which supports a lot of other organizations that do research, including ProPublica, the Center for Media and Democracy.

What we do, what I do now in my job, is almost nothing but file Freedom of Information Act requests, trying to get data and documents. We share all these documents with the public through a database maintained by the University of California, San Francisco. So, reporters and lawyers and lawmakers and pretty much anybody who wants to can access all of these documents that otherwise would be really, really hard for them to find.

Kate: OK. I personally think that the biggest issue we need to address, pretty much agreed upon, is power and money and politics, and creating a separation between those things. Close the revolving door. I think there are ways that we can do that, that would actually benefit politicians. It’s like, “Well, if you can’t work for a large agricultural lobbying firm for two years after you’re done working for the EPA, then, in exchange, you’re going to paid more.” I think that there are people who would sign up for that, as long as they get paid enough more.

Luigi: But I think that rather than complaining about the political system, I think what we should do is try to fix the university system, because it seems that one of the big problems is academia. Number one, the lack of transparency. But even with transparency, I think that there is not enough censuring of people that get their stuff written by somebody else. I think that that is absolutely horrendous. It’s easy to say when it’s in a different field, but I fear we in economics are not exempt from that.

Kate: Absolutely. I would like to prefer the carrot over the stick, particularly when it comes to my own industry. But, unfortunately, I don’t think that it would work here. I think that we need harsher punishments for people who fabricate data and for people who find certain findings at the behest of their financial sponsors but don’t disclose those relationships.

I think that there should not only be career consequences, but there should also be financial consequences. But I also think that there are problems with the peer-review process. We tend to assume that when we hear the term “peer review” that everything is going to be OK. But I think that there is deep corruption in the peer-review process. It’s surprising to me that we don’t see, at least in economics or finance, we don’t see that many publications that are retracted or findings that are overturned. And if there is a debate, then usually that takes place in conference rooms. But you don’t see it publicly. I think that debate over findings is healthy and should be encouraged.

Luigi: So, in these two episodes we’re trying to look at pollution from a different point of view. All the attention these days is on CO2emissions. The traditional pollution of our water, our air, our food has kind of taken a backseat. But, number one, it’s problematic because this has a lot of costs. A lot of costs in terms of our health, and if you don’t care about health, in terms of our ability to produce successfully. Second, I think that people don’t fully understand how much this lack of interest for this type of pollution is the result of a political-economy equilibrium, where I think it’s easier to discuss CO2because we all produce it, and there is not a particular target. The cows produce a lot of CO2, so everybody is responsible for CO2.

When it comes to aerial pollution, where there is a clear company or a couple of companies that are the villains, nobody has the courage to go after those companies, because they are too influential: politically, on the media, in academia as well.

Carey Gillam: Well, and this ties the economics together with it. Our National Toxicology Program in 2016 issued a paper, very long and lengthy, looking at the economic costs of the toxic environment that we’re allowing. Basically saying, if you don’t care about the cancer and the infertility and the environmental pollution, the loss of biodiversity, if you don’t care about all of that sort of thing, let’s lay out the economics for you. So they laid out how much lost IQ points means to us, in terms of productivity in the future and that sort of thing.

I mean, that’s the larger message, is that we’re sort of being conditioned to just accept these toxins and pesticides and other chemicals and heavy metals in our food and our water. We’re being conditioned to think that that’s OK, and that’s normal, and that it’s OK to be sick, that we’re just accustomed to being sick. All the people who have cancer, they’re living longer, and that’s a success story, and we cheer that we can have body parts cut off. You can be radiated and pop pills, and yee-haw, because we’re living longer with cancer now. But this report laid it out and said, “Why don’t we start focusing on preventing these diseases to begin with?” And the first part of that is understanding the real risks and having transparency, and then going about setting policy.