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January 10 2019

The Politicalization of Professional Medical Organization

by Julie Gunlock

Following up on Charlotte’s excellent overview of the American Psychological Association’s truly nutty guidance that states masculinity is a mental condition in need of a cure, I want to say a word about these medical associations, which were originally stood up to help professionals communicate within their industries, have better access to information about their field of work, convey best practices and industry standards, and to provide guidance on regulatory issues the industry might face, or need to fight. That’s all good. 

Yet, in the last several decades, many of these professional organizations have become increasingly political, specifically radically left wing. While many of these organizations (outside of the medical field) still provide valuable information to their members, in the case of the APA and many other medical organizations, politics trumps good science and proper medical guidance. That makes them dangerous.

Consider the recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which last year issued an official statement urging parents to limit their children’s exposure to chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives, and packaging materials. The statement, which subsequently received widespread news coverage, created panic among parents, who obviously regard the AAP as a trusted source of child health and safety information. 

Before I discuss why the AAP guidance on preservatives, food coloring and plastic food containers is absurd and unnecessary, it’s important to point out that the official AAP process for releasing policy statements is outdated and it does not reflect—nor even consider—the opinions of its members. In fact, of the 67,000 members (which includes pediatric medical subspecialists and surgical specialists) only 100 AAP staff members are involved in the review process of policy statements (this was confirmed in a conversation I had with an AAP staff member). That’s right. The AAP doesn’t seek approval from its members before publishing these provocative statements yet these statements are meant to reflect the opinions of all AAP members. 

According to Dr. E. Stephen Edwards, who was president of the AAP from 2002-2003, some members want the AAP to poll the membership before releasing policy statements but, he explains, “expense, logistics and a historically low voter turnout on other issues, such as elections, make that impractical.” He added: “Typically, only 30% of members vote on any particular matter, including the (election for AAP) president…We couldn’t get a sense of what the membership believes even if we tried to poll members.”

It is, therefore, hardly the consensus among pediatricians that parents should toss all of their plastic food containers and avoid convenience foods that might contain colorings and preservatives, all of which are approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, AAP’s policy statements reflect the opinion a small group within the organization—a group that has become increasingly political and that is actively pushing for European-style precautionary approaches to regulation, which demands onerous regulations on products and manufacturers even in the absence of scientific proof of danger or harm to consumers.

Regarding the specifics of the AAP guidance: it was entirely based on a laughably weak study performed by two radical environmentalists. The study “Food Additives and Child Health” was produced Drs. Leonardo Trasande and Sheela Sathyanarayana. The study claims chemicals like Bisphenol-A (known more commonly as BPA), “…can act like estrogen in the body and potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems.” That sounds scary except for the fact there has yet to be any study that conclusively shows causation between those conditions and the chemical. Sure, there are flawed studies and studies that show a correlation (which, naturally Trasande and Sathyanarayana cite in their own study), but to date, there exists not one study showing causation.

Interestingly, the AAP statement failed to mention another study on BPA--the just-completed CLARITY study produced jointly by the National Toxicology Program, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. That study, which cost millions of dollars and was conducted over a five-year period, concluded that “BPA produced minimal effects distinguishable from background…” which means anything that was noted could have occurred naturally.

The CLARITY study is the single largest, most comprehensive review of BPA ever done yet this reassuring study wasn’t mentioned in the AAP statement. Nor was the fact that several regulatory agencies worldwide, drawing on thousands of studies, have concluded that BPA is safe. So, what we have here is the AAP ignoring the findings of the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union’s Food Safety Authority, Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Norway’s Scientific Committee for Food Safety, France’s Food Safety Agency, Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, Canada’s Health Agency, and Australia and New Zealand’s Joint Food Standards Council in favor of some anti-chemical environmental activist. Okay, sounds legit. 

Why didn’t the AAP not mention these reassuring facts in its guidance? Even in subsequent media reporting on the issue, the AAP stood firm on its flawed recommendation, leaving out critical and very reassuring information. 

The reason is simple: the AAP has become so politically motivated, that it’s promoting flawed scientific studies conducted by two agenda-pushing scientists over providing parents good information on child health. 

The AAP also failed to mention the clear conflict of interest in promoting Dr. Sathyanarayana’s research. Sathyanarayana served as a board member of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR), a local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, both of which are radical anti-chemical, green organization that promote a precautionary regulatory approach. Dr. Sathyanarayana is also a regular at environmental conferences, where no doubt, she’s paid to promote junk science—mostly her own. Dr. Leonardo Trasande also is a board member and advisor to two green organizations and he too is a regular at environmental conferences. One wonders what motivates these scientists to continue to crank out bad science….hmmm.

In any other industry, this conflict of interest would have to be disclosed—especially to doctors who may provide guidance to parents based on this terrible study. But it isn’t just Trasande and Sathyanarayana’s political activism that should have given the AAP pause. The AAP should have recognized disreputable scientists and studies cited in Sathyanarayana and Trasande’s study.

For instance, one citation was to a study conducted Dr. Shanna Swan, whose research is so laughably bad, its been dismissed by the National Toxicology Program. In one of Dr. Swan’s more amusing studies, she claimed Americans are ingesting dangerous levels of chemicals based on urine samples she collected from just ten Mennonite women (TEN—as in, all of them can fit in my minivan!) over a 48-hour period (as in, two days. TWO!). For a moment, let’s dismiss the hilariously small sample size and brief time frame of the study (which essentially makes this study’s conclusions useless) and focus on the fact that Mennonite women eschew modern conveniences, like plastic food containers and processed food. Naturally, these women would have lower levels of chemical residue in their urine. 

Yet, Swan’s strategy is to claim that the mere presence of any residue, no matter how small, suggests a toxic dose. Since the Mennonite women had less chemical residue than, say, a woman who regularly uses plastic food containers, drives a car, uses a smart phone and lives a modern lifestyle, she concluded that living a simpler life—like the Amish or the Mennonites--is critical to the health of consumers. Yet, toxicologists know that humans can come into contact with certain doses of chemicals with no adverse affects. That’s why we often hear the phrase “the dose makes the poison” when talking about toxicological topics. Yet, that’s not a theory Swan ascribes too, despite that being accepted as fact since Paracelsus said it in the 15thcentury. Nor did Swann mention the fact that the Mennonite and Amish communities generally have many health problems. 

Trasande and Sathyanarayana also cite a study by Fredrick Vom Saal, who, like Swan, is a well-known anti-chemical activist who has been called out within the scientific community for unscientific tactics in academic research and for ties to trial lawyers and anti-chemical for-profit industries. He’s even been criticized by the scientist who originally raised concern about BPA (and who now criticizes those who profit off producing observational studies that appeal to reporters looking for simplistic and scary headlines. 

The study also cites Dr. Philip J. Landrigran, another well-known activist scientist who’s made a career of terrifying parents with the baseless and monstrously cruel claim that chemicals exposure causes autism and ADHD despite experts in those medical fields not yet having determined the actual cause of either condition. 

Interestingly, Dr. Landrigan, is a leading member of the AAP (huge surprise there), serving on the Executive Committee of the AAP’s council on environmental health, which is the committee that officially issued the new policy statement. It’s nice to have friends in influential places. 

Trasande, Sathyanarayana, Swan, Vom Saal, Landrigan are often cited in each other’s studies and their names often appear on the same list of advisors, board members and contributors to environmental causes. 

In short, this clique of activist scientists supports each other’s preposterous studies that suggest death and doom for American consumers. These studies, while considered a joke among many in the scientific community, are gold to desperate click-hungry reporters (who usually have zero science training) eager to produce scary stories with scintillating headlines. These flawed but dramatic studies have made this cabal of scientists the media darlings of alarmism and mini-celebrities in environmental circles. These activist scientists also understand the massive power of these professional organizations and the willingness of parents to believe that “if the AAP says it, it must be true.” 

What many parents don’t know though is that the AAP has become a creature of this minority of activist scientists eager to push through tougher regulations on food and product manufacturers. If the United States does adopt a precautionary regulatory regime, consumers will pay in the form of scarcity, higher prices and lower quality of products. For wealthy doctors like Trasande, paying more for food and common, everyday goods might not be a hardship, but for lower and middle class people, this could be a crippling financial burden.

For too long, the AAP and now the APA has allowed these politically motivated members to drive the agenda and have permitted these figures to use the prominence of these professional organizations to promote flimsy science. This is a violation of both organization’s missions, which is to help people healthy and support doctors who work everyday to accomplish that goal. 

Medical organizations like the AAP and the APA need to clean house and create policies that discourage this sort of political activity from it's members--and among those who approve official policies. 





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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