Corrupt Research, How the Toxicity of Dioxin was Concealed

a. Falsified research

One of the most telling moments of the Kemner v Monsanto trial was without doubt the revelation that scientific studies carried out for Monsanto by Dr Suskind between 1980 and 1984 had been falsified. These same studies had been used as proof to deny the Veterans’ claim in their class action against the producers of Agent Orange. They were shown to have been a scientific fraud by the National Research Council, which stated that Monsanto’s studies were “plagued with errors in classification of exposed and unexposed groups and hence have been biased toward a finding of no effect” [1] or in other words, it was shown that the claim that there was no link between being exposed to dioxin, and developing cancer, was false.

This affair was taken up again in 1990 by Greenpeace and the researcher Joe Thornton who copublished Science for Sale. This report showed that the study published in 1980 by Dr Raymond Suskind and his Monsanto colleague, Judith Zack, was flawed because the way in which it defined people as having been “exposed” or “not exposed” (the control group) was grossly inaccurate. According to the explanation offered by Raymond Suskind to the court, the two researchers had proceeded on the basic theory that “the group that was exposed to the runaway reaction and who could be identified as well by their development of chloracne was probably the most heavily exposed group in the Nitro population” [2] On this basis, the only persons included in the group taken to have been “exposed” were those who were there on the day of the accident and who had developed chloracne; those were there but didn’t get chloracne were excluded. This was despite the fact that Dr Suskind did know that even if a worker didn’t get chloracne, they could still have been exposed.

On the other hand, any worker with any other kind of skin problem (psoriasis, acne) had been included in the group taken to have been “exposed”, even though production line workers who had not been at work on the day of the accident were systematically placed in the group of the “non-exposed”, even if they had suffered from chloracne, due to the dioxin from the accident remaining present in the factory walls for several months.

In a letter to the journal Nature in 1996, the toxicologists Alastair Hay and Ellen Silberberg observed that “the total cohort of workers exposed to dioxin at Monsanto should be considered as a whole without making a distinction between workers exposed to dioxin in the process accident or when making 2,4,5-T”. All the more so since the data assembled by Dr Suskind in his 1953 study showed that “There was a similar spectrum of chloracne incidence in both groups” and that “Notably serious diseases of long latency, such as cancer, may be expected to result from lower and more chronic exposure”. [3]

A study published in 1983 by Judith Zack and William Gaffey, two Monsanto employees, had the stated aim of comparing the state of health of 884 of the factory workers, with all those working on the 2,4,5-T production line as the “exposed” group and “all the others” as the control group, and these latter included “employees holding a job having plant-wide responsibilities with the potential for exposure to 2,4,5-T” who “were, for the purposes of this study, considered to be non exposed”. [4]

The result: the cancer rate in the exposed group was lower than it was in the group of the non-exposed…The trick consisted of only including in the study those who had worked at the factory and/or who had died between 1 January 1955 and 31 December 1977. In other words: While the accident took place in 1949, those who had worked at Nitro between 1948 and 1955 were left out of the study, as were those who had died after 1977. This arbitrary protocol meant that Monsanto excluded 20 workers who they knew had been exposed, particularly during the 1949 accident, and of whom 9 had died of cancer and 11 from heart disease. What’s more, 4 of the workers who had died from cancer and who had been classified as “exposed” in the study published in 1980 were to be found in the control, or “non-exposed” group in the 1983 group…. [5]

But it was the final study, published in 1984 by Raymond Suskind and Vicki Hertzberg, his colleague at the Kettering Institute, in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, which really scaled the heights. During questioning in Kemner v Monsanto Dr Roush, the firm’s medical director, remembered that instead of the four cancers recorded among the exposed group, there had been 28 (so that 24 cases had, therefore, been deliberately omitted). [6] When questioned in his turn, Dr Suskind was “shown to be such a fraud that he refused to return to the State of Illinois for completion of his cross-examination”. [7]

This is a particularly revealing example of the abuses that take place in privatised research and how ethics are lost in commercialised science.

b. Scientific ethics corrupted: the affair of Richard Doll

The affair surrounding the evidence that dioxin is a carcinogen doesn’t stop there since a new scandal involving Monsanto came to light with the new matter of Richard Doll. This affair started with a scientific study conducted by the Swedish researcher Lennart Hardell in 1973 which demonstrated the link between exposure to the pesticides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T and the development of rare cancers like soft-tissue sarcomas. His findings were to be challenged by one of the world’s most renowned cancer specialists, Professor Richard Doll, who told an Australian national commission that “His conclusions cannot be sustained and in my opinion, his work should no longer be cited as scientific evidence. It is clear, too, (...) that there is no reason to suppose that 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T are carcinogenic in laboratory animals and that even TCDD (dioxin), which has been postulated to be a dangerous contaminant of the herbicides, is at the most, only weakly carcinogenic in animal experiments”. [8]

It was the case that Professor Doll enjoyed a reputation as being incorruptible because it was he who had proven the link between smoking and lung cancer. Unfortunately, this legendary reputation was smashed to pieces in 2006, when the Guardian revealed that the Hon. Sir Richard Doll had been secretly working for Monsanto for 20 years, as was proved by a letter from 1986 addressed to him from Monsanto, confirming the renewal of his contract at a fee of $1500 per day. [9] This threw the independence of research carried out for commercial manufacturers, who often finance such studies, into disrepute.

[1] Anthony B Miller “Public Health and Hazardous Wastes” Environmental Epidemiology, vol 1, National Academy Press, Washington, 1991, p207.

[2] Raymond R. Suskind, Testimony and cross examination, in Boggess et al v. Monsanto, Civil Nos 81-2098-265, et seq (USDC S.D. W.VA), 1986

[3] Alastair Hay et Ellen Silberberg, “Dioxin exposure at Monsanto”, Nature, vol. 320, 17 April 1986, p. 569

[4] Judith A Zack et William R Gaffey, “A mortality study of workers employed at the Monsanto company plant in Nitro, West Virginia”.

[5] Alastair Hay et Ellen Silberberg, “Assessing the risk of dioxin exposure”, Nature, vol. 315, 9 May1985, p. 102-103

[6] Report of Proceedings. Testimony of Dr. George Roush, Kemner v. Monsanto Company, Civil n° 80-L-970, Circuit Crt., St. Clair County, Illinois, 8 July 1985, p. 1-147 ; 9 July 1985, p. 1-137

[7] Kemner v. Monsanto, Plaintiffs Brief, 3 October 1989

[8] Cited in Lennart Hardell, Mikael Eriksson et Olav Axelson, “On the misinterpretation of epidemiological evidence, relating to dioxin-containing phenoxyacetic acids, chlorophenols and cancer effects”, New Solutions, Spring 1994

[9] “Renowned cancer scientist was paid by chemical firm for 20 years”, The Guardian, 8 December 2006