Conflicts of Interest in Coverage of a Health Issue by the New York Times
Paul Brodeur, Huffington Post, Dec 12, 2014
In recent days, employees of The New York Times have posted no fewer than three pieces on the newspaper’s website, asserting that the risk of harm from the electromagnetic fields (EMF) given off by power lines is negligible, and that fears of it are unfounded. Among the postings is a seven-minute video produced by Kyra Darnton for Retro Report, entitled “Long After an 80’s Scare, Suspicion of Power Lines Prevails.” An accompanying article with the same title has been posted by a reporter for Retro Report named Clyde Haberman, and a third piece entitled “A Fresh Look at Power Lines, Cancer and the Dread-to-Risk Ratio” has been put up by a reporter for the newspaper named Andrew C. Revkin.
The video produced by Darnton and some colleagues at Retro Report relies preponderantly on the testimony of two researchers — David Savitz, who is vice-president for research at Brown University, and John Moulder, director of radiation biology at the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Early in his career, Savitz conducted studies showing that children living in homes near power lines were developing leukemia twice as often as children who did not live in such homes. Later, he received a five-million-dollar contract from the Electric Power Research Institute — an organization financed by the electric utility industry — to study the risk of cancer among electric utility workers. Savitz found an increased risk of brain tumors in these workers, but he subsequently renounced this finding and challenged similar findings on the part of other researchers. He also renounced his finding of increased leukemia in children exposed to power-line electromagnetic fields, and challenged similar findings by other researchers. In Darnton’s video, he declares, “it’s quite questionable whether these fields cause leukemia at all.”
Savitz has every right to renounce his work on electromagnetic fields, and to challenge the validity of studies conducted by other researchers, but is it good journalistic practice for Darnton and her colleagues at The Times to omit any mention of the fact that he has received heavy financing from the electric utility industry?
John Moulder, who, like Savitz, also plays a leading role in Darnton’s video, tells its viewers that the “Current state of the science says power lines cannot be a major public health hazard.”
Moulder has every right to express such an opinion, but is it good journalistic practice for Darnton and her colleagues to omit any mention of the fact that he has testified repeatedly as a paid consultant for the electric utility industry that electromagnetic fields given off by power lines do not pose any health risk?
As for Moulder’s assessment of the current state of scientific research regarding the power-line health hazard, how in the name of any claim to objectivity could Darnton and her colleagues omit mention of a report issued by a panel of scientists convened by the prestigious International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in Lyon, France, whose twenty-five members reviewed the findings of dozens of studies of childhood leukemia victims and the proximity of where they lived to power lines, and concluded unanimously that power-frequency magnetic fields are “possibly carcinogenic to humans”? (Among the members of the panel were representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Radiological Protection Board, the Yale University Medical School, and the World Health Organization.)
The answer to this question is that Darnton and her colleagues did not try to find out if there was any evidence to cast doubt upon the conclusion that exonerates power-line electromagnetic fields of posing any health risk. If they had seen fit to contact me — the author of half a dozen articles about the EMF hazard in The New Yorker — or Louis Slesin, the editor and publisher of Microwave News — a meticulously researched newsletter that has carried information about the health hazards posed by EMFs and microwave radiation for more than thirty years — they could easily have learned about the conflicts of interest that may well taint the views of Savitz and Moulder, as well as about the unanimous findings of the IARC report.
(Disclosure: I appear in Darnton’s video giving a three-second answer to a question asked by Tex Koppel during a Nightline program about EMFs that aired back in the early 1990s. Both Louis Slesin and I have written letters to Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of The Times, pointing out the conflicts of interest on the part of Savitz and Moulder, and the necessity of acknowledging such conflicts when reporting on public health issues.)
This is not the only time that The New York Times has failed to inform its readers adequately about the existence of a major public health risk. During a twenty-year period between the 1960s and 1980s, I wrote a number of articles for The New Yorker about the massive health hazard posed by exposure to asbestos, as well as the extensive toxic tort litigation being brought in jurisdictions around the nation by sick and dying asbestos workers and the families of dead workers against asbestos manufacturers, who had concealed the hazard for half a century — in some cases, neglecting to inform their workers when X-ray examinations revealed that they had developed fatal lung disease. During that whole period, The Times carried articles about the asbestos problem on its business pages, and often referred to asbestos as an “alleged carcinogen,” thus conferring legal rights upon a mineral that had killed or disabled tens of thousands of American workers, and been shown to be the most important industrial cause of cancer in the world. Moreover, The Times invariably “balanced” the findings of researchers whose studies had demonstrated that asbestos was carcinogenic with denials issued by researchers financed by the asbestos industry.
Only when the nation’s largest asbestos company, Johns-Manville, filed for bankruptcy on August 26, 1982 — an event brought about because juries around the nation had found the company guilty of outrageous and reckless misconduct, and levied millions of dollars in punitive damages against it — did the story find its way to the front page of The Times.
A day later, an editorial writer for the newspaper proved to be so ignorant of the fifty-year cover-up of asbestos disease by the nation’s asbestos manufacturers that he compared the human agony they had visited upon their workers with the fiscal uncertainty besetting them. “Asbestos is a tragedy,” he wrote, “most of all for the victims and their families but also for companies, which are being made to pay the price for decisions made long ago.”
Asbestos proved to be a powerful carcinogen that inflicted cancer and other disease upon workers who inhaled its fibers in occupational settings. It also posed a health hazard for people in the general population, who were exposed to asbestos insulation that had been sprayed as fireproofing on the girders of buildings — a practiced now banned nationwide. Studies of power-frequency electromagnetic fields show them to be are a far weaker carcinogen than asbestos, but also demonstrate that they pose a cancer hazard for telephone linemen, electric utility workers, and workers exposed to EMF emanating from electrically powered equipment and machinery. As for children and people in the general population, a glance along any street in the United States should be sufficient to show that power-line EMFs are ubiquitous in the environment, and to serve as a warning that their potential to cause widespread harm should not be ignored or denied.
One might have hoped that The Times had learned by now to inform its readers about conflicts of interest that could skew the accuracy of its reports on matters relating to the public health. However, judging from Darnton’s video and the pieces by Haberman and Revkin, who have rubber stamped its flawed conclusions, one would have been mistaken to do so.
One might hope that in the future The Times will inform its readers regarding conflicts of interest in people it presents as reliable sources, so readers may make better-informed decisions about the information being transmitted to them.
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