Let the Truth Trickle Up: Attack Science, Perchlorate, and Babies

Shana Campbell Jones

March 12, 2009

The truth hurts. Some of us accept the truth; some of us ignore it. All too often, industry-sponsored scientists take another approach to the truth: attack.


A recent spat over a study finding that perchlorate blocks iodine in breast milk is an object lesson in what CPR Member Scholar Tom McGarity calls “attack science.”


In October, I blogged about this study, which was the first to ask whether perchlorate inhibits iodine transport to breast milk. Perchlorate is a component of rocket fuel and munitions. It’s known to cause thyroid problems by inhibiting how iodine is absorbed by the body. Iodine is essential to proper fetal and infant neurological development. According to the EPA, perchlorate has contaminated the drinking water of 16.6 million Americans to unsafe levels. The study’s question is important because though we knew that perchlorate inhibits babies' thyroids when they ingest it, we didn’t know whether perchlorate also created problems for babies because of what it was doing to their mothers’ thyroids.


The results were startling. Breast-feeding babies were getting too much perchlorate at the expense of much-needed iodine. Perchlorate, in other words, inhibited the transport of iodine from the mother to the baby and was itself transported to the baby. Thus it looks like perchlorate interferes with the amount of iodine babies get twice: by reducing the amount of iodine received from the mother through breast milk, and by inhibiting the baby’s ability to intake iodine.

This study did not go unnoticed. John Gibbs of the Perchlorate Study Group, an organization of perchlorate manufacturers with members such as Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation and Lockheed Martin, published a Comment (subscription required) on the study last week in Environmental Science and Technology. His attack arsenal included distortion, obfuscation, and dismissal, claiming that: the authors misrepresent his work (a critique he has used with other scientists on three different occasions); that scientists should be more concerned about thiocynate, a compound found in tobacco smoke, than perchlorate; and that the Texas Tech scientists who conducted the study have been deluded by their graphing software, which made the data seem more startling than it really was. A convenient dismissal of the study and an attempt to downplay its importance -- all in a day’s work.


The authors of the study replied eloquently (subs. required):

It seems fair to point out that the “Perchlorate Study Group” (PSG), the sponsor of the Gibbs comments (and much of his previous work on perchlorate), despite its academic sounding name, is actually an organization of perchlorate manufacturers and users. Other seemingly unbiased but concerned observers have questioned whether respectable journals should publish PSG sponsored studies (that always find perchlorate not to be of concern) because of conflict of interest. While we do not claim that all that the PSG and its subset “Council for Water Quality” has sponsored is necessarily erroneous, the reader should know that these organizations have a vested interest in attempting to show that perchlorate is harmless or that the effect of perchlorate is overshadowed by other iodine transport inhibitors. If one cannot be directly proven wrong, it would be a reasonable obfuscation strategy to claim that one has cited some PSG sponsored work that has been completely misrepresented and mischaracterized, whether because of one’s incompetence or deliberate intent.

The truth about perchlorate hurts: iodine deficiencies in fetuses and breastfeeding babies lead to permanent neurological issues, such as ADHD, lower verbal intelligence quotient, lower overall IQ, and lower motor performance. Meanwhile, scientists trying to understand the problem have to respond to industry attacks, which are designed to delay much-needed protections. Sponsoring counter-research in order to create uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of attack science. It’s time for the truth to trickle up.


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