Risky Business for the Environment

International health organizations and various standards authorities tend to calm the public and to ensure it that it is being protected from environmental dangers.

International health organizations and various standards authorities tend to calm the public and to ensure it that it is being protected from environmental dangers. The system protecting the public is supposed to be based on standards or recommendations formulated after scientific tests assessing the risks and determining the level of pollution or radiation likely to be injurious to human health.

There is something reassuring in imagining a group of scientists devoid of ulterior motives, leaning over test tubes and checking what is dangerous and what is not. But the ones who stoop over the test tubes and influence the decisions adopted by public institutions regarding danger levels are often scientists employed by the manufacturer of the substance they are investigating.

The most recent issue of the magazine of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences in the U.S. contains the results of a study done by two researchers of internal documents of cigarette manufacturers. Their entire business depends on tobacco, and it is difficult to grow tobacco profitably if it is not protected from bugs through the use of pesticides. The research demonstrates that the companies have succeeded in significantly influencing how the authorities define the extent of environmental risk posed by the use of pesticides.

During the 1990s, the companies hired the services of a scientist who worked for the World Health Organization, and he participated in WHO meetings that examined recommendations on the risk levels of pesticides - without revealing who had hired his services.

Similarly, several scientific consultants were hired who received instructions to collect information that would support the industry's claims regarding pesticide use. The collected information was published in a scientific magazine over which the scientific consultants wielded considerable clout. The cigarette makers also sampled pesticide use while fully aware that the spraying method was defective and hindered detection of the material emitted.

The corporate influence also reached the International Agency for Research on Cancer - the worldwide holy of holies in defining cancer risk. A former top scientist at the agency, Dr. James Huff, published an article three years ago arguing that the agency has a clear preference for the needs of industry at the expense of public health.

According to a study that Huff conducted, industry representatives enjoy a majority - versus health experts from public and governmental groups - on the expert panels that determine the extent of certainty about whether a particular substance is carcinogenic. Thus, lenient rulings have been issued on the carcinogenic risk of many substances that industry wants to manufacture without restrictions.

Industry and commercial companies that have other interests besides protecting public health also wield considerable influence in Israel. The cellular companies and the Israel Electric Corporation greatly influence the assessment of the dangers from radiation from electric facilities and broadcast antennas, and from air pollution from power plants. IEC officials sit on professional committees that determine standards and permissible levels of risk.

The way the public can defend itself against the influence of interested parties in risk assessment is to demand full transparency in testing procedures, including the exposure of the connections of the professionals who conduct these tests. Industry representatives can express their views and contribute their professional information, which is sometimes the best in the field. But this must be done openly, based on the principle of giving priority to public health when setting standards - and not to the profit considerations of this or that enterprise.

There is another means to neutralize the impact of industry representatives, to increase the support for researchers at universities and government research institutes to enable them to conduct more studies. In this way, it would not be necessary to rely on the opinions of scientists who have other interests.

The urgency for this type of support in Israel was evident last week during a conference on health and the environment that was held at Tel Aviv University's medical school in collaboration with the Knesset's Commission for Future Generations. The dean of the medical school, Prof. Dov Lichtenberg, complained that budget cuts have forced the closing of two public institutes for environmental and employment health. He added: "Today, there is no one in Israel responsible for telling the truth about the impact of the environment on health."