Alex Berezow Hates Science, Is a Menace to Public Health
Since Its Founding in the 1970’s, the American Council on Science and Health has been a Sewer of Corporate PR. Berezow Continues this Sham’s Putrid Tradition.
6 minute read
The first thing you need to know about the American Council on Science and Health is that you can get to the truth, but only by reading them backwards. When they defend fracking, you know it causes cancer and birth defects. If they say sodas are fine, you know to check your waistline.
Having recently become the public face of ACSH, Alex Berezow has continued their putrid tradition of promoting nonsense and attacking science and public health experts. In recent years, Berezow has defended climate science denier Freeman Dyson, attacked New York Times reporter Eric Lipton as a “science birther,” denigrated the research that links fracking with cancer, and called laws to limit sodas and prevent obesity “junk science.”
In one of his more bizarre rants, Berezow dismissed pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha as “something of an ideologue” after health experts praised her for uncovering the crisis in Flint, Michigan, that found lead in drinking water contaminated the blood of children.
Berezow has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Soon after Elizabeth Whelan formed ACSH in the 1970s, with a $100,000 grant from the conservative Sarah Scaife Foundation, the director of communications at the Food and Drug Administration told People magazine, “Whelan just makes blanket endorsements of food additives. Her organization is a sham, an industry front.”
The corporate funding that has propped up this corporate mouth-piece has been fraught with issues. In 1990, Howard Kurtz wrote an expose about ACSH for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), noting that when Whelan appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to beat up on environmentalists, King forgot to mention that more than half of ACSH’s funding came from corporations or corporate foundations, many of them food and chemical companies.
“It was a mistake. We probably should have said that on the program,” a senior CNN executive told CJR. “We were looking for that side, someone to represent the chemical companies.”
And, boy, did they represent them.
At the time, ACSH did not hide their company ties, and Kurtz chronicled how their positions nicely aligned with corporate sponsors:
Could there be any connection between Whelan’s defense of saccharin and funding from Coca-Cola, the PepsiCo Foundation, the Nutra Sweet Company and the National Soft Drink Association? Her praise for fast food and a grant from Burger King? Her assurances about a high-fat diet and support from Oscar Mayer Foods, Hershey Foods, Frito-Lay, and Land O’ Lakes?
“I’m very proud of my relationship with corporations,” Whelan said at the time. “I put their names all over my literature.”
But criticism that ACSH was just a PR front for dirty industries must have weighed on Whelan. Eventually, evidence of the bags of cash that companies threw at the group began to disappear from ACSH’s pamphlets, reports and books.
In 1997, ACSH published “Global climate change and human health,” a report downplaying mainstream science on climate change and alleging that “measures to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—would be both costly and ineffective.” Nowhere does the report note corporate sponsors, but documents published a couple years ago show that ACSH had been tasked with writing such a report by the Global Climate Coalition, which was a lobbying and public relations campaign funded by fossil fuel interests.
In 2013, decades after ACSH began hiding its company financing, Mother Jones obtained a treasure trove of the group’s internal documents that showed a reliance on corporate dollars:
ACSH donors in the second half of 2012 included Chevron ($18,500), Coca-Cola ($50,000), the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation ($15,000), Dr. Pepper/Snapple ($5,000), Bayer Cropscience ($30,000), Procter and Gamble ($6,000), agribusiness giant Syngenta ($22,500), 3M ($30,000), McDonald’s ($30,000), and tobacco conglomerate Altria ($25,000). Among the corporations and foundations that ACSH has pursued for financial support since July 2012 are Pepsi, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, DowAgro, ExxonMobil Foundation, Phillip Morris International, Reynolds American, the Koch family-controlled Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Dow-linked Gerstacker Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the Searle Freedom Trust.
The ACSH’s internal financial documents also show the group cultivating Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm that Mother Jones exposed as part of a spying operation against environmental groups.
In 2019, ProPublica reported that Dezenhall Resources had spent decades working for Purdue Pharma and had helped plant stories in the media that favored opioid prescribing. “Dezenhall has been instrumental in helping with the placement of pain patient advocacy stories over the last several years,” Dezenhall Executive Vice President Sheila Hershow wrote in a 2006 email.
Ties to Dezenhall Resources may explain why Berezow and his ACSH colleague Josh Bloom pushed back in 2017 against policies to restrict opioid prescribing at the industry-friendly opinion page of STAT news, and criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to limit opioid prescriptions in the Wall Street Journal. Berezow has not responded to a request to explain the nature of ACSH’s relationship with Dezenhall Resources.
In a separate example, documents made public in a court case show that Monsanto began funding ACSH in 2015 to attack the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency, as well as scientists, journalists and non-profits critical of the pesticide glyphosate—a probable carcinogen.
By this time, ACSH had such a terrible reputation that Monsanto’s own internal emails show that executives at the despised company had misgivings about associating themselves with the group.
“While I would love to have more friends and more choices, we don’t have a lot of supporters and can’t afford to lose the few we have,” one Monsanto executive wrote in an email to convince his colleagues to fund ACSH. He then added, “You WILL NOT GET A BETTER VALUE FOR YOUR DOLLAR than ACSH.”
Although they did not provide monies in 2019, the ExxonMobil Foundation reports giving grants of at least $60,000 in both 2017 and 2018 to ACSH, whose scientific advisory board has embraced a who’s who of climate deniers, including:
Patrick J. Michaels, who has promoted climate change disinformation for more than 30 years on behalf of the fossil fuel industry;
Recently deceased rocket scientist S. Fred Singer, who denied the science on climate change and the health effects of smoking; and
Trump administration advisor William Happer, who argued in 2016 that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.
“ACSH is a front group for libertarian billionaires, fossil fuel companies, and basically every other industry selling dangerous products,” says Harvard’s Geoffrey Supran, whose research documents the history of climate science denial by the fossil fuel industry.
It is not hard to discern why Berezow found his home at ACSH. In 2012, Berezow dismissed the health risks of fracking, telling radio station KCRU, “People on the left are saying crazy things, like fracking is causing cancer and that we're all going to be poisoned by these chemicals in the fracking process.” Berezow again dismissed fracking dangers in 2017 by labeling critics “Putin puppets.” Months later, The Atlantic reported that research found children born close to fracking wells are likely to be smaller and less healthy.
After pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha revealed that high levels of lead were polluting the blood of children living in Flint, Michigan, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She later testified twice before Congress and was awarded the Freedom of Expression Courage Award by PEN America. But Berezow dismissed Dr. Hanna-Attisha for this work as “something of a demagogue” and accused her of “alarmism and fearmongering.”
The CDC states that no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.
“I was at first surprised by the attacks and concerted efforts to minimize lead exposure,” says Dr. Hanna-Attisha, in an email to The DisInformation Chronicle. “It's one of the most well studied poisons - not something we are just learning about and thus trying to regulate. Classic science denial for ulterior motives.”
When San Francisco Bay Area voters began debating a soda tax to fight childhood obesity and the growing crisis of diabetes, Berezow called the law “junk science” and wrote, “Busybodies in the American public, never content to leave other people alone, always seem to need a common enemy to rally against. For years, it was McDonald's. Then it was Monsanto and Big Pharma. Now, it's Big Soda.”
Nonetheless, the WHO finds that taxing sodas is effective at reducing sugar consumption and thus preventing obesity and diabetes. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association issued a policy calling for taxes, warning labels, and advertising restrictions to deter young people from consuming sugary beverages.
Berezow seems to hold particular disdain for the New York Times. When reporter Eric Lipton wrote a story exposing the chemical industry ties of President Trump’s appointee to oversee chemical policy at the EPA, Berezow accused Lipton of being a “science birther” and wrote that the “New York Times has some of the worst science coverage in the nation.” Berezow also rushed to defend Monsanto after journalist Danny Hakim wrote how the company may have ghostwritten articles for academics to favor the safety of the pesticide glyphosate.
“NYT's Danny Hakim Is Lying to You,” Berezow shot back.
But nothing seems to make Berezow more upset than mentioning corporate cash and ACSH in the same sentence. Concerned about ACSH and allegations that “some of its positions reflect the interests of its funders,” Tim Appenzeller of Science decided to spike a column that Berezow wrote for the journal.
Publishing their email exchange, Berezow wrote, “The scientific publishing industry is thoroughly corrupt, and AAAS and Science are now also a part of the problem.” After posting this tirade, Berezow was applauded on Twitter by two former employees with Monsanto, which is now Bayer Crop Science: Cami Ryan and Liza Dunn.
UPDATE: The Council on Strategic Risks has cut ties with Alex Berezow