by Will Moredock
"...for those suffering from what they believe to be a hypersensitivity to certain chemicals or other items within their environment, we want to make it clear...Yes, you are suffering, but relief is not from a doctor prescribing color-free garments. Relief is more likely and reliably found looking inward, and seeking answers."
The above paragraph is taken from a 1996 editorial which ran on the Mental Health Net website. It reflects part of the skepticism and scorn which is often directed at sufferers of multiple chemical sensitivity. And it's part of a chemical industry-funded campaign to shift the symptoms of MCS from chemistry to psychology.
To fight its PR wars, the chemical industry created something called the Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute, which seems to be modeled after the Tobacco Research Institute. TRI has been pumping out misinformation and questionable data for decades, trying to keep the waters muddied on the health effects of smoking. Funded by such corporate giants as DowElanco, Proctor & Gamble and Monsanto, ESRI is headed by Dr. Ronald Gots, who also runs the National Medical Advisory Service, which provides expert witnesses to defend chemical corporations in tort lawsuits.
Dr. Gots has done no original peer-reviewed research on MCS, Montague writes, yet he and ESRI specialize in claiming that MCS is a mental condition.
The Chemical Injury Information Network monitors MCS issues and personalities, including Gots. The May 1996 issue of Our Toxic Times, the CIIN newsletter, reported that Gots posted a report on the Internet, recounting that a workshop of "experts" in Berlin, sponsored by the German government and the World Health Organization, had pooh-poohed the whole notion of MCS. In fact, the workshop was sponsored by the International Programme on Chemical Safety, which has a reputation of being pro-chemical industry. Additionally, the actual report contained a significant footnote not included in the Internet posting: "These conclusions and recommendations. . .do not necessarily represent the decisions or the stated policy of the United Nations Environmental Programme, the International Labour Organization or the World Health Organization." As for the "experts," CIIN says the majority of them were either linked to the chemical industry or had no demonstrated expertise on the MCS issue.
Speaking from his office in Rockville MD, Gots denied ever making an Internet posting concerning the Berlin workshop. "I've never posted anything on the Internet," Gots said. "I was involved with an organization that may have posted something on the Internet."
Gots said the real charlatans are the MCS therapists who charge as much as $10,000 to $15,000 a week for unproven treatments.
"I'm against quackery and I'm against improper medical care," Gots said. "...Every major medical organization that has looked at this issue has not found it to be a physical, organic or toxicologically based disorder...It is a fringe medical practice; it is being populated -- in part, not entirely -- by people who are profiting tremendously from the misery of unhappy people and using those people for their own personal gain."
Not so, says Dr. William J. Meggs of East Carolina University, who has written a half dozen papers on MCS. Those who claim that MCS is a psychogenic condition are "people who've done virtually no sound research in the area and who are funded, directly or indirectly, by commercial interests."
Research in the field of MCS -- including his own -- has been blocked by industry lobbyists, Meggs said. "A very effective job has been done of convincing people that this is a psychological problem and, therefore, they shouldn't waste money on it." He said he has had "solid, scientific grant applications" turned down with the comment: "This is a psychological problem."
It's all another example of trying to sort out fact from industry propaganda and it's the same battle the public health sector has been waging with Big Tobacco for decades. The ties between industry and research are more common than one would think, according to Cynthia Wilson, editor of Our Toxic Times. CIIN has documented other cases of science-for-hire being used by the chemical industry and later being discredited, according to Wilson.
In mid-1996, Wilson reported a sudden increase of more than tenfold in the number of anti-MCS articles in the popular and academic press, as the chemical industry ratcheted up their PR campaign. The articles seemed to hit on several points consistently:
- that MCS sufferers refuse to face their psychological problems;
- that MCS sufferers are greedy and litigious;
- that greedy doctors are promoting MCS to sell false treatments and
- there are no objective tests for MCS.
In the December 6, 1997 Creative Loafing, we described a pattern of funding for rightwing think tanks in the US over recent years. Based on a study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, CL showed how corporations and private individuals have invaded academe and the media, spending millions of dollars to produce and disseminate research designed to influence public policy and public opinion.
One of the most effective groups cited in the NCRP study was the Reason Foundation, of Los Angeles. According to the Foundation's 1996 annual report, some of its biggest corporate donors included the American Petroleum Institute, American Plastics Council, Chemical Manufacturers Association, Chevron Corp., Eastman Chemical Co., Exxon Corp., Proctor & Gamble, Shell Oil Co., Union Carbide Corp. and Western States Petroleum Association. A spokesman for the Reason Foundation assured us "there definitely is not a connection" between the money it receives and the work it does.
Part of the foundation's aggressive communications strategy is the monthly publication Reason. In June 1996, Reason published an article by Michael Fumento, citing Dr. Ronald Gots, the bogus World Health Organization workshop, and other science-for-hire sources to conclude that MCS is a psychogenic disorder and should be treated as such: "By all traditional standards of illness -- symptoms, causes, treatments and tests -- MCS comes up wanting."
One of the readers of the Reason article was Dr. John M. Grohol, a psychologist in Columbus, Ohio, who proceeded to spin out an editorial for his Internet news service, Mental Health Net, which we quote above.
Contacted at his home in Columbus, Grohol acknowledged he had never done any research on MCS; all he knew was what he read in Reason. But, apparently, that was enough.
"I reviewed their data," he said of the article. "Their data was solid."
We'll probably never know who paid for that data or how much it cost, but it's a safe bet somebody got their money's worth.