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The American Cancer Society (ACS): Hand-in-Hand with Polluters

The degree of collusion between the ACS and the chemical industry became clear to Marty Koughan, a public television producer, in 1993, when he was working on a documentary about pesticide dangers to children for PBS's Frontline. Koughan's investigation relied heavily on "Pesticides in the Diet of Children," an embargoed, groundbreaking report from the National Academy of Sciences. The report declared the nation's food supply "inadequately protected" from cancer-causing pesticides and a significant threat to children's health.

Shortly before Koughan's program was scheduled to air, a draft of the script was leaked to Porter-Novelli, a high-powered PR firm for produce growers and the agrichemical industry. In true Washington fashion, Porter-Novelli plays both sides of the fence, representing not only government agencies but also the industries they regulate. Its 1993 client list included DuPont, Monsanto, American Petroleum Institute, and Hoffman-LaRoche—as well as the USDA and the NCI. Porter-Novelli has also done pro bono work for the ACS for years.

First crafting a rebuttal to help manufacturers soothe public fears about pesticide-contaminated food, Porter-Novelli then faxed a copy to ACS headquarters in Atlanta. The rebuttal was emailed to 3,000 regional ACS offices to help field viewers' calls after the show aired. It read: "The program makes unfounded suggestions … that pesticide residues in food may be at hazardous levels. Its use of 'cancer cluster' leukemia case reports and non-specific community illnesses as alleged evidence of pesticide effects in people is unfortunate. We know of no community cancer clusters which have been shown to be anything other than chance grouping of cases and none in which pesticide use was confirmed as the cause."

This unabashed defense of the pesticide industry was taken up by the right-wing group Accuracy in Media in an article called "Junk Science on PBS." Asking, "Can we afford the Public Broadcasting Service?" the piece went on to discredit Koughan's documentary: "'In Our Children's Food' … exemplified what the media have done to produce these 'popular panics.'"

Koughan was outraged that the ACS was being used to defend the pesticide industry. "At first, I assumed complete ignorance on the part of the ACS," said Koughan. But after unsuccessful efforts to get the national office to rebut the AIM article, Koughan finally grasped what was happening. "When I realized Porter-Novelli represented five agrichemical companies, and that the ACS had been its client for years, it became obvious that the ACS had not been fooled at all," he said. "They were willing partners in the deception, and were in fact doing a favor for a friend by flakking for the agrichemical industry."

Excerpted from “The High Stakes of Cancer Prevention” by Samuel Epstein and Liza Gross, Tikkun Magazine, Nov/Dec 2000

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Cancer Prevention Coalition
University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health
2121 W. Taylor St., MC 922
Chicago, IL 60612

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