Finding my inner scientist - Ed Brock

It's starting to seem like you can't trust anybody in a lab coat these days.

Oddly enough, I divined this insight after reading a pair of articles in the June edition of "Scientific American." Don't ask me how they managed to publish the June edition in May. They're scientists so maybe they have a time machine.

One of the articles in question were on the topic of how corporations are using "product-defense" firms to defeat federal regulation of dangerous chemicals. The other was on a growing belief among some scientists that the dangers of obesity are being exaggerated by government agencies and (surprise, surprise) researchers who are funded by the weight loss industry.

The first article was by David Michaels, former Department of Energy assistant secretary for environment. Now, Mr. Michaels apparently served under the Clinton administration and I'll grant that he seems to target the Bush administration in his article and accuses them of perpetuating the problem.

But politics aside (even Michaels says this has been going on under various administrations) the problem is frightening. It seems that every time a study is done that indicates a possible danger with a certain substance exists, the company that produces the substance hires its own scientists to debunk those reports.

Now, this isn't necessarily bad. These companies do have the right to defend themselves against faulty studies that can hurt their industry.

The problem is these "product-defense" firms, according to Michaels, do more to just obscure the situation by emphasizing the natural uncertainty in any scientific study. They then make the case that "nothing is certain so regulation isn't necessary."

And sometimes they just apply pressure.

For example, in the 1970s reports began circulating that the decongestant and appetite suppressant phenylpropanolamine (PPA) caused hemorrhagic stroke in young women. The makers of PPA-containing drugs, including Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, fought the Food and Drug Administration for 20 years before they were finally allowed to pick somebody to undertake an epidemiological study of the drug.

In 1999 the companies picked Yale University School of Medicine. The Yale study indicated that, indeed, PPA causes hemorrhagic strokes. So the companies went to The Weinberg Group in Washington, D.C. and that firm set about depositioning the scientists involved in the study and pressuring them. In the end, the FDA did advise the manufacturers to pull the drug that was causing between 200 to 500 strokes a year among people 18 to 49 years old.

As for the other article, it turns out that, while being overweight or obese can cause problems and a growing number of people in America and Europe are becoming overweight, the actual health risks aren't as bad as they're being presented.

To be honest, I haven't finished reading that one, yet, but the part about the weight-loss industry funding some of the supposedly exaggerated reports caught my eye.

I'm not a scientist, though I like to keep abreast of what's happening in the scientific community. That's why I read "Scientific American."

But I don't have my own lab and, like most of you, I just have rely on what other people say. I guess all we can do is pay close attention to the source of our information and take nothing for granted just because a supposed expert is saying it.

Otherwise, we the general public may find ourselves up a creek without a beaker or microscope.

Ed Brock covers courts and public safety for the News Daily for the News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 254 or at ebrock@news-daily.com .