Junk science. Two of the sharpest words in the arsenal of the public policy wars. Is your adversary touting a study that shows a product is safe (or harmful)? Vilify the study as bogus, cooked-up junk paid for and concocted by this industry or that special interest group. Sometimes the charge fits; other times it doesn’t.

Koopy looking spooky

The charges of junk peddling are flying fast and furious in the case of chemicals used in plastic baby bottles and other consumer products. Environmental and consumer groups say the science, while not final, indicates that the use of certain chemicals in plastics could be a health hazard, so the safest move would be to phase such chemicals out. Industry groups say studies have not conclusively proven the chemicals to be dangerous, so companies should be free to use them. Each calls the other’s science junk.

The plastics and chemical industries are touting a recent report from the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) which concluded that phthalates, chemicals used in some plastics, pose no danger. To which enviro and consumer groups reply: That’s junk. Follow the money, they say. Who funds ACSH? Industry groups. What does ACSH find in virtually every study it does of consumer products? That the products are safe, despite the radical alarmists who say otherwise.

Now questions are swirling around a phthalates editorial on the drkoop.com website, a for-profit, online venture carrying the name of much-revered ex-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who chaired the panel that wrote the controversial ACSH report. (The former “nation’s doctor” made an estimated $20 million to $25 million when his drkoop.com site went public earlier this month.)

The editorial on Koop’s site vilifies those who question the safety of phthalates used in plastic products, calling them peddlers of junk science who relied on a single study done by Frederick vom Saal at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

The Koop site doesn’t do itself any favors, however, by apparently lifting full passages of its editorial from a letter sent out this month by a lawyer for the American Plastics Council.

The letter, which warned television broadcasters against using a report on plastic bottle safety done by Consumer Reports, says:

“… the safety of these products has recently been called into question by a publicity campaign aided by Fenton Communications, the public relations firm which engineered the Alar scare that prompted consumers to throw away millions of safe apples in 1989.”

The Koop piece says:

“It comes from the same people who brought us the ‘Alar’ scare, prompting consumers to throw away millions of safe apples in 1989 …”

The letter says:

“This scare is based primarily on a study involving a total of 14 male mice whose mothers were exposed to very low doses of bisphenol A.”

The Koop piece says:

“This current scare is based primarily on a study involving a grand total of 14 male mice whose mothers were exposed to extremely low levels of Bisphenol-A.”

The letter says:

“At least four other studies in three different laboratories — using far more animals and doses — have been unable to duplicate vom Saal’s findings.”

The Koop site says:

“At least four other studies in three different laboratories, using far more animals and doses than vom Saal, have been unable to replicate vom Saal’s findings.”

The letter says:

“vom Saal’s ideas turn basic science on its head …”

The Koop site says:

“vom Saal’s ideas actually turned basic science on its head …”

We could go on, but we won’t.

An American Plastics Council representative had no comment on the similarity between the letter and the editorial, and said he didn’t know of anyone at the organization who could explain it.

A spokesperson for Koop said the doctor was “dumbfounded” that the piece so closely mirrored the lawyer’s letter. “He can’t understand how that could have happened,” the spokesperson said.

We don’t think we’ve heard the last of this saga. Stay tuned.

Browner Out?

Not exactly. The First Annual Muckraker Award for Lamest Candidacy Disavowal goes to EPA Administrator Carol Browner, and the trophy is hereby retired henceforth and forevermore.

Last week, Browner, through an EPA spokesperson, said she was not “actively looking” at the race to replace retiring Florida Sen. Connie Mack (R). So does that mean she is “passively looking”? Or perhaps “casually looking”? This language reminds us eerily of the days during the impeachment trial when White House sources put out the word that they were “aggressively listening” to a possible deal for a congressional censure. It was a marvelous display of adverbial dexterity. We don’t know if the same adverb warriors came up with “actively looking,” but, whoever the wordsmiths are, we salute them for their beautiful vagueness.

So, if the campaign of Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, the leading Democratic contender for Mack’s seat, runs into a snag, will Browner go from “casually looking” to “actively running”? That’s a long shot, but don’t count it out.

We at Muckraker aren’t terribly surprised by the move, as we noted several weeks ago that Florida Dems were never sold on the idea of a Browner run and in fact were perfectly content to let the moderate Nelson take on conservative impeachment superstar Rep. Bill McCollum (R).