LAURA VANDENBERG: DICHRON INTERVIEW
A candid conversation with environmental health scientist Laura Vandenberg, on why harmful chemicals that act as hormones have pushed her to study the disinformation industry.
8 minute read
Back in the late eighties, scientists began discovering chemicals that act like hormones in consumer products. And just like the hormones produced by our body, these endocrine disrupting chemicals alter how our bodies function.
Laura Vandenberg, an endocrinologist in the environmental health science department at UMass Amherst, studies these chemicals, documenting how they are found in common products and can have dangerous effects that are not always readily apparent. Because research in her field attracts industry attacks, she has begun publishing studies to document corporate disinformation in science. Her most recent study is “The science of spin: targeted strategies to manufacture doubt with detrimental effects on environmental and public health.”
“Disinformation is absolutely relevant to the field of environmental health,” she said to The DisInformation Chronicle. “All information looks the same if you can't separate the good from the rotten.” Here is an edited and condensed version of our talk.
DICHRON: I want to get this out of the way, up front. What exactly is endocrinology?
VANDENBERG: Endocrinology is the study of hormones, which are chemical signals, often made in one organ, and that move throughout the body in our blood, to affect cells that are quite distant from them.
DICHRON: We often think of hormones when they cause the big changes that happen during puberty. But hormones are always there, affecting behavior and how our body functions.
VANDENBERG: We think about hormones for the fun stuff, which is sex. I teach 20-year-olds, and that's what they're interested in. But hormones are responsible for every biological function from conception, when the sperm and egg meet, all the way through the aging process.
Your brain works because you were exposed to thyroid hormone during fetal development. We need hormones to maintain body temperature, for bone mass, and blood pressure. Insulin is the hormone that helps us store sugar. If you name a process in our bodies, a hormone is probably involved.
DICHRON: Hormones also have effects in really tiny amounts.
VANDENBERG: During early development, the concentrations of androgens it takes to make an embryo grow male reproductive organs is in the parts per trillion. So let me put that into context—think of an Olympic sized swimming pool. A part per billion is a tablespoon of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool. A part per trillion is a drop of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool.
It’s a really, really, really tiny amount. But the effects are very obvious.
Most of the chemicals that I study, that mimic hormones or block hormones, they're not like a poison. These chemicals do not make you fall over and die. But that does not mean that you haven't been harmed.
DICHRON: You work on chemicals that mimic hormones, and yet you just wrote a paper that has nothing to do with that. You wrote about disinformation by the tobacco industry, sugar, coal companies, agrichemical industry, and a climate denial think tank.
Why are you writing about scientific disinformation?
VANDENBERG: It started because I was teaching an environmental health class on chemicals or pollutants that affect humans. It's been well documented that industries have protected those chemicals and the products that use them. Students find this very fascinating because they think of science as a pure thing.
In my field, disinformation is happening right now, but we don’t have all the evidence yet. But we have those documents for tobacco, the coal industry, and for climate change. And there is no competent scientist arguing that tobacco doesn't cause harm. So we can boil down the tactics that these industries use, and then apply them to the chemicals that I study.
DICHRON: You found five common tactics shared by all these industries:
Attacking study design
Gaining support from reputable individuals—that’s called third-party spokespeople or in pharmaceuticals: key opinion leaders (KOLs)
Employing hyperbolic language
Influencing government agencies or laws
VANDENBERG: We wanted to identify every tactic used by these five industries or organizations. We found 28 unique tactics, and then we found five that they all used.
DICHRON: Do you think disinformation is apparent to most scientists? Or do scientists think this is silly that you're even like spending time on this?
VANDENBERG: There's two uphill battles. When we published our first review on these five case studies, some of the peer reviewers were saying, “Everybody already knows this.” But they are not known to a lot of environmental health scientists. My colleagues are not aware of these stories. We do research in labs, and it's not until you encounter an industry campaign that you realize it happens.
I went to a Society of Toxicology meeting and a junior colleague and I had just published some research on chemical mixtures used in fracking. After my colleague spoke, someone from one of the petroleum trade organizations came to talk to us.
She was very pleasant, but she said, “Every time you publish something, we all get together and laugh, because your chemical mixture is entirely irrelevant to what we use in the fracking industry.” She was so dismissive.
I said, “That's great. Tell us what you're using and we'll study that in the lab next.” Of course, we got nothing from her. Everything was this attempt to try to be very friendly, but also to bully and to suggest that the research is not relevant. But the lab was using a chemical mixture that had been measured in fracking wastewater; it wasn't made up.
Another example is the “Let Nothing Go” campaign by Monsanto and the agrichemical industry to harass people on social media. Industries will come after you, because if they can silence you, then that's worth it.
DICHRON: You’ve also published research on these chemicals used in cosmetics called parabens.
VANDENBERG: Yes, we recently published two papers. One is a scientific evaluation using rodents that were exposed to propylparaben, which demonstrated that this chemical alters the mouse mammary gland. But before that, we published a paper asking whether these chemicals are safe.
These chemicals, parabens, were approved for use in cosmetics with almost no safety information available. In the European Union, an expert panel said these chemicals should not be used in children's products or diaper products. They're not saying they're harmful, but we don't have enough evidence to say that they're safe.
The disinformation campaigns generally start once evidence shows that a chemical causes harm. Industry really likes overexaggerating the limitations of a study. They often use a circular logic: you can't rely on the human studies because researchers didn't purposefully expose people to those chemicals and then check with an unexposed group of humans.
And when you use animal studies where you do this exact type of experiment in rodents, they say, “No, animals aren’t people, so we can't rely on those data either.”
DICHRON: One of the disinformation tropes that goes back decades with the American Council on Science and Health is to say, “Well that’s just in mice.”
VANDENBERG: I didn't know that. Yeah, well, funny.
DICHRON: It’s actually true when it comes to therapies. It is a common joke in medicine to say, “Well, we know how to cure cancer, but in mice.” But there's a difference between using rodents to study a drug’s benefit versus its toxicology.
VANDENBERG: Well, we need to think about drug testing, but flip it on its head. If you developed a new therapy and it kills mice, you wouldn't say, “Oh, but that’s not people. Let’s try it on humans anyway.” Drug benefits seen in studies of mice do not always predict how it works in people. But would you allow a drug that killed mice to be tested in people?
Another thing, the hormone system is very well conserved among species. There are differences, but if you give human estrogen to a mouse, it acts like estrogen in the mouse, because it's the same thing.
DICHRON: You work in endocrine disruptors, but there was a prior generation that started this field. Reporters often dismissed their research. Were you worried about getting into this area of science?
VANDENBERG: The first generation of scientists in endocrine disruptors, most of them fell into it. A famous example is Pat Hunt, where they accidentally washed her rodent cages with floor cleaner and then all kinds of nasty stuff started leaching out like BPA. When she saw what was happening to her rodents, that’s when she started studying these chemicals.
When Shanna Swann first heard about these chemicals decades ago, she didn’t think the science could be true. But then she started analyzing the data. She just published a book called “Count Down” about how these chemicals threaten human reproductive health, and it's been widely reported in several media outlets.
DICHRON: What are chemicals that mimic hormones? What does that mean?
VANDENBERG: Hormones are like the keys to your door, and they float around in our body until they find a receptor, which is the lock. And if the key fits into the lock and can turn it, it causes the cell to do different things.
When estrogen binds to its receptor, it causes that receptor to turn on genes. The thing about the estrogen receptor is that it's a pretty funky lock. It lets weird things come in and turn the key, and then turn on genes.
These chemicals were not designed necessarily to do that, but they just have the right shape to mimic the natural key, which is estrogen.
DICHRON: I think most people have heard of BPA or Bisphenol A, this chemical used to make plastics for containers or water bottles. And I have a sense that most people realize it’s bad. But if you go back 15 years, there wasn’t much acceptance of this research.
VANDENBERG: This chemical has been studied since the late 80s or early nineties. When I started my PhD in 2003, there was enough research to raise your eyebrow that this is a chemical that's doing some stuff inside the body. By the time I graduated in 2007, it was very clear BPA affects animal development.
This research was being countered by industry studies finding no effects of BPA. The industry-funded labs were usually force feeding the chemical to animals, usually at very high doses. And then when they would euthanize the animals, they would look for things like a change in the weight of the liver or the spleen. But does that mean the chemical is safe? No, it doesn’t.
In the academic labs, we looked for more effects and found changes in the development of the mammary glands and lesions of the mammary glands that are precancerous. We also found changes in gene expression and changes in animal behavior.
After 30 years, there are now tens of thousands of studies on BPA in animals and cells, and hundreds that suggest associations between BPA and health outcomes in people. The regulatory agencies in the United States have done very little about this. In Europe, BPA has been labeled a Substance of Very High Concern. It will be phased out, and if an alternative exists, you're supposed to be using the alternative.
The needle has moved, but not nearly as much as you would expect, considering the weight of evidence.
DICHRON: I wrote about BPA 15 years ago and I feel like how it’s discussed in the media has changed.
VANDENBERG: I think so, too. It's not debatable anymore in the endocrinology community, in the pediatrics community and the reproductive communities. There's been scientific statements that have come from the Endocrine Society in 2009, the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2013, and from the American Academy of Pediatrics a few years ago.
In 2012, the World Health Organization and UN Environmental Programme published a state of the science document that said endocrine disruptors have effects on health.
DICHRON: Do you think that disinformation should be a required topic for people going into environmental health? They are probably going to run into this in their careers.
VANDENBERG: The short answer to that is yes. I teach undergraduates studying public health, and a lot of my students are not necessarily interested in environmental health. They want to work on HIV programs or address racism as a public health issue. But if we don't train all of our students to recognize good resources of information, to critically evaluate evidence, and to examine financial influence and conflicts of interest, then we're going to be in big trouble.
All information looks the same if you can't separate the good from the rotten.
DICHRON: Speaking of current disinformation in environmental science, I found two pieces at this website called Science Based Medicine on endocrine disruptors. We ran a piece about the website’s editor, David Gorski.
VANDENBERG: Yeah, those were an interesting read. The article titled “One True Cause of all Disease” is based on a straw man argument, which is a logical fallacy we have discussed in our recent paper “The Science of Spin”. I don't know any endocrinologist who is saying, “Aha, the reason people get all of these problems is because of endocrine disruptors alone!” We know there's other factors mixed in.
No honest endocrinologist is saying that the problem with diabetes will be fixed if we just deal with endocrine disruptors. That's ridiculous—a straw man argument. And the tobacco industry used a similar argument, “How could tobacco cause all of these different kinds of cancers and heart disease?” It does because tobacco smoke includes a lot of different chemicals.
With endocrine disruptors, we're usually not talking about one chemical having all of these effects. There are over 1000 chemicals that are known or suspected endocrine disruptors. But even if we are talking about just one chemical, like BPA, it is possible to have a wide variety of effects because the endocrine system is responsible for so many different actions in the body.
DICHRON: There was another article written about Geoffrey Kabat.
VANDENBERG: There's a big part of this piece that's absolutely true and clever. Humans have a very poor perception of risk. People are afraid of sharks, but they’re actually more likely to die from a vending machine falling on them.
DICHRON: Kabat goes into this long discourse about BPA and that it’s been banned from baby bottles.
VANDENBERG: I think we're way overestimating the importance of exposure to BPA from baby bottles. People only drink from baby bottles for a very short period. And yet, we still find BPA in their bodies. I never used a baby bottle. My mother nursed me. And yet there's BPA in me right now.
And, by the way, they didn't really ban BPA in baby bottles. That’s inaccurate. Industry decided to not use it in bottles anymore. Not because the FDA told them they couldn’t.
DICHRON: Kabat says that scientists who study endocrine disruptors have become too invested in their beliefs to do unbiased research. Any bad effects of endocrine disruptors, if any, are negligible.
VANDENBERG: That's not a science-based argument. As I already pointed out, many scientific and medical organizations state that endocrine disruptors are an issue. There’s this idea that those who study these chemicals really need to find a problem or we would lose our jobs, our funding, or our relevance.
Frankly, I would love to go back to studying hormones. But even if I wanted to stick to studying chemicals, my work and my funding is never dependent on finding harm. We studied one chemical in my lab where we didn't really find anything and just moved on. There are literally thousands of other chemicals to choose from.
DICHRON: Guess what Kabat did earlier in his career.
VANDENBERG: Oh, no. What did he do?
DICHRON: Scientists exposed him for his tobacco work.
VANDENBERG: There you go. Kabat’s in the tobacco documents?
VANDENBERG: I disclose where I get my money from, and most of my money comes from the National Institutes of Health, and they would be happy to fund me to do basic science hormone research. But for someone to not disclose that they've taken money from the tobacco industry, and yet they're suggesting that people who are doing science are the ones with bias. I guess this explains why that article read so weird.