Viewpoint: Guardian (UK) ‘Toxic America’ series: Anti-chemical activism masquerades as science journalism

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In May 2019, the British newspaper The Guardian launched an ambitious journalism project, “Toxic America,” which it claims documents the increasing hazards posed by chemicals in food, cosmetics and household items sold in the United States. But the news organization fumbled in ensuring that its audience would be presented with nuanced views of these complex and contentious issues.

The Guardian had staffers author some of the reports but relied most heavily on freelancers, some of whom have little to no expertise on the subjects they opined about. Most critically, the series has so far included no articles written by independent scientists who have conducted primary research on chemical-related issues. Instead, the newspaper contracted with well-known activist organizations to write guest articles—in some cases groups whose viewpoints are controversial and often in conflict with the scientific mainstream.

Worse, the background of the freelance journalists and the affiliations of the activist organizations were not disclosed to the readers, who undoubtedly assumed they were reading articles by journalists who have devoted their lives to presenting fact-based analysis.

The Guardian’s increasingly challenged relationship with mainstream science

The Guardian touts its new series, which premiered on its US website, as a:

…six month project that will explore the health implications of daily exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in our everyday lives. From pesticides in our produce to toxic dyes in cosmetics, Americans are routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals that have long been banned in countries such as the UK, Germany and France. Of the 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the EPA, only one percent have been rigorously tested for human safety.

It’s an inflammatory statement, odd for a newspaper already under fire from science journalists and scientists for its increasingly advocacy-tied science journalism. The Guardian is well respected for its solid, if sometimes selective, reporting on climate change, where its articles generally reflect the scientific consensus. Coverage of the gene-editing revolution in medicine has been spectacular. But when it comes to addressing more nuanced, ideologically-contested issues that have emerged as hot button topics in recent years—nuclear energy, fracking and natural gas, chemicals in food, and modern agriculture—its reporting is spottier and sloppier. More recently, it has embraced advocacy positions, presenting opinion analysis as news pieces. This series so far, and the paper’s coverage of biotechnology and chemicals, reflects its disturbing recent trend of letting advocacy positions far from the mainstream seep into its reporting, and for not alerting the reader to the biases of many of its contributing authors.

Only a few of the Toxic America articles are by staff reporters. Most were written by freelancers and activists, many of whom are known for their advocacy of organic food and opposition to conventional agricultural techniques. Reporting by its own journalists, while accompanied by scare headlines, has been better than the contracted pieces. In the anchor piece that kicked off the series, Emily Holden did some genuine reporting, testing herself for the presence of a wide range of chemicals suspected to exist in an urban/suburban environment and talking to numerous scientists. The conclusion: Some industrial chemicals, such as PFAS, phthalates, organophosphate pesticides and residues from cigarette smoke can be detected in our bodies. She also noted that claims that these chemicals pose serious human health concerns are often speculative, with much of the evidence suggesting that at typical exposure levels, human health is not endangered. As noted by Paracelsus (1493-1541), “the dose makes the poison.”

The series has gone downhill since, with the publication of questionably sourced freelance pieces and articles written by activists employed by advocacy groups. In almost every case, their backgrounds and affiliations have not been noted in any way.  Let’s review some of the freelancers, first.

Caty Enders wrote about ‘topic substances hiding in our food.” It’s a subject about which she has no apparent expertise and appears not to have written about before. Lauren Zanoli is an energy reporter who informs us that ‘70% of foods contain toxic chemicals’. That’s scare mongering; according to hundreds of studies, the amount of genuinely ‘dangerous’ toxic chemicals present in food is almost non-existent. Her premise is also factually wrong, as all foods contain a plethora of ‘natural’ toxic chemicals, which like their synthetic counterparts pose no harm when consumed in trace amounts. The Guardian provides no link to inform readers about the background of Eleanor Goldberg Fox, a freelance writer who raises scientifically unsupported claims about dangerous levels of ‘toxic chemicals in food packaging.” Freelancer Troy Farrah writes about ‘food additives and bread‘, despite no formal training in the area nor any history of background reporting on this complex issue.

We might generously assume that all of these freelancers are talented, well-meaning and independent. But their lack of nuanced knowledge in these subject areas and their willingness to rely on sources such as the Environmental Working Group (supported by the fringiest corporations and foundations, many with ties to the organic industry). The EWG’s history of concocting scientifically deceptive campaigns against conventional food and agriculture sets off alarm bells to every responsible science-savvy journalist. Why are the The Guardian’s editors so oblivious?

The Guardian recruited activist groups to author straight news pieces and did not disclose it

Already, numerous articles have been written by activist groups, although the reader would not know this as it was not disclosed anywhere in the piece or via links. For example, there is no alert to the reader that Susan Cosier, who reports about topsoil related concerns and the sustainability ‘dangers’ of conventional agriculture, works for the National Resources Defense Council, which has no apparent expertise on agriculture or food-related issues and an increasingly suspect reputation among science journalists and scientists because of its advocacy positions.

Maria Rodale, a member of the pro-organic and anti-biotechnology Rodale publishing family and former CEO of Rodale, Inc., authored a piece on ‘why American food is hurting you’. No bio was presented with her piece, so the reader had no idea that her analysis was actually commentary  presented as independent journalism. That’s unethical. Among many questionable statements in her opinion piece, Rodale expressed angst that US regulations do not adhere to the “precautionary principle” followed by the European Union, which has mostly banned the use of new technologies — including gene editing — in food production. Rodale claimed that lax regulations make Americans sick:

After all, our food and our health are deeply connected. American healthcare spending has ballooned to $3.5 tn a year, and yet we are sicker than most other developed countries. Meanwhile, our food system contains thousands of chemicals that have not been proven safe and many that are banned in other countries.

That’s a whopper of a non sequitur and highly misleading. There are myriad reasons for increasing health care costs, with the aging of the US population number one on the list. No serious research has linked healthcare costs to chemicals in food. There is also no evidence that Americans are “sicker” than people in “other developed countries.” In fact, cancer rates in particular have been dropping steadily in the US over the past 20 years during a period when genetically engineered crops gradually came on line. The highest rates of cancer include precautionary-obsessed New Zealand and Australia. Europe, Ireland, France, Denmark and Norway among others have cancer rates about the same or higher than in the US. In other words, Rodale is an incompetent reporter, peddling dogma while ignoring data. That did not deter The Guardian from offering her a platform for her opinions-disguised-as-news.

Here comes US Right to Know direct from The Guardian to you

This article labeled as a backgrounder on “organics” by Carey Gillam may represent the worst of this series’ failings.

Image: The Guardian

The shamelessly pro-organic piece relies on the Environmental Working Group, known among scientists and science journalists for its willingness to twist facts, particularly when commenting about chemicals and genetic engineering. Scientists and nutritionists regularly scoff (here, here and here)  at EWG’s annual “Dirty Dozen,” which purports to list the most “dangerous” foods tainted by chemical residues. Study after study notes that those foods contain residues dozens or hundreds of times lower than those that would present health hazards.

[Read the GLP profile on the Center for Food Safety]

Despite EWG’s terrible reputation among mainstream scientists, The Guardian team of freelancers and activist contributors sprinkles its misinformation nuggets and quotes from its staff throughout their pieces. For example, Gillam touts EWG’s claim that organic crops are free of “synthetic pesticides that have been tied to cancer, reproductive concerns and additional health problems.” In fact, hundreds of studies have shown that pesticides in our food do not present a serious danger to our health.

For years, under Democrat and Republican Administrations alike, the Pesticide Data Program of the US Department of Agriculture has annually addressed concerns about pesticide residues stoked by EWG and its fellow travelers, sampling tens of thousands of foods. The USDA consistently finds that residues are below EPA tolerance levels over 99% of the time. (Scientists say there is no reason to be concerned about those <1% of the cases in which recommended tolerances were exceeded because the levels are already padded by as much as 100 times). The consistent USDA conclusion: “residues found in agricultural products sampled are at levels that do not pose risk to consumers’ health.” Not one Guardian article has cited this overwhelming consensus.

If Carey Gillam, or other authors in this series, were interested in conveying mainstream science, they also could have quoted from this Journal of Toxicology National Institutes of Health study that contextualizes the almost non-existent “dangers” of “toxic chemicals” in our food. Or they could have interviewed one of its authors. (Even better, why didn’t The Guardian seek out a scientist who has studied this issue to write an article?) Gillam also fails to mention the well documented health dangers from natural chemicals used by organic farmers, such as spinosad, copper sulfate and other pesticides allowed.

She also misrepresents the International Association for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) 2015 Monograph on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Bayer’s Roundup weedkiller, as “probably carcinogenic” as a justification for her support of organic foods. IARC is a body that evaluates “hazard” not “risk,” meaning that it ignores exposure levels. Moreover, it pointedly concluded that any potential health risks of glyphosate would be to applicators; it specifically noted that there is no evidence that trace amounts of glyphosate in food present any danger.

[Read GLP’s GMO FAQ on glyphosate safety concerns]

Note also that IARC is the only global research body to find health issues linked to glyphosate, and that finding is problematic at best. The Genetic Literacy Project has highlighted the central conclusions of 15 global agencies in its infographic, ”What do global regulatory and research agencies conclude about the health impact of glyphosate]. IARC alone raised any concerns, placing glyphosate in the same danger category as eating bacon and going to the hairdresser—hardly grounds for the alarmism she and other anti-chemical campaigners stir.

Earlier this year, in the wake of renewed fears stoked by Gillam and others have consistently misrepresented, Health Canada re-investigated glyphosate health concerns and issued its second determination on the herbicides safety:

After a thorough scientific review, we have concluded that the concerns raised by the objectors could not be scientifically supported when considering the entire body of relevant data. The objections raised did not create doubt or concern regarding the scientific basis for the 2017 re-evaluation decision for glyphosate. Therefore, the Department’s final decision will stand….No pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed. [emphasis added]

Why was Gillam given a platform to spread her unscientific viewpoint? Why does The Guardian not disclose Gillam’s numerous conflicts of interest?

Gillam became the research director at US Right to Know, an organic industry-funded attack group, after she was reportedly fired in 2015 from Reuters for taking advocacy positions on GMO related issues, including glyphosate. The Guardian provided no disclosure of her checkered history, just a link to vague, whitewashed biographical information. Gillam has contributed several opinion articles to The Guardian since 2018, and all are presented as if they are objective reporting.

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This advocacy trend in The Guardian on science issues related to agriculture and chemicals appears to be escalating, appearing outside the ‘Toxic America’ series. In early June, Guardian staff writer Arthur Neslen wrote that the Washington-based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is “an industry lobby group that masquerades as a scientific health charity.” It cited a “study” linked to USRTK. The article parrots a press release posted on USRTK that claims that ILSI is a “food industry lobby group,” which is more than mildly hypocritical and ironic because USRTK is just that—an industry front group funded by the organic industry to attack conventional agriculture and influence credulous and compliant media, such as The Guardian. The “peer-reviewed study” cited by The Guardian appeared in a fringe predatory journal, and included as a co-author Gillam’s boss at USRTK, Gary Ruskin, known for his highly politicized attacks on mainstream science and scientists.

A few days after the hit piece appeared in USRTK/The Guardian, three scientists linked to ILSI, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Sir Paul Nurse and Janusz Bujnicki, responded to the attack in a letter to The Guardian:

The statement in your article that our report recommends “a slew of industry positions” on pesticides is incorrect. What was recommended in our report was that the European commission “facilitates a broader discussion throughout society to establish an EU-wide, shared vision for food production, including the role of plant protection products therein”. Likewise, it is incorrect to say that we recommend replacing current rules outlawing any products that could harm human health with a US-style concept of “acceptable risk”. What our report says is that the European commission should “re-examine the treatment of hazards, risks, costs and benefits – to provide reassurance that the system is fit for purpose.

Related article:  California court rejects challenge of state's decision to label glyphosate herbicide as possible carcinogen

Have The Guardian’s ideological beliefs led to a breach in its ethical and factual responsibilities to its readers?

The premise of the entire Toxic America series is raising eyebrows among journalists and media ethicists. The “campaign”, the Guardian admits—indeed celebrates—is advocacy journalism. It’s in part a fundraising gimmick. The newspaper brazenly calls the articles: “A new editorial series and fundraiser on dangers of everyday exposure to toxic chemicals in our food, water, household products, and cosmetics.” In a statement touting the project, Guardian editor John Mulholland demonstrates his own lack of understanding about the importance of accurate, nuanced, ethical and transparent science reporting:

The Guardian is committed to rigorous environmental reporting, both on the threats to our natural environment and the solutions that can help preserve it. This series arose from readers’ deep interest in the dangers present in our environment and we hope they will contribute to this project to support our reporting on the chemicals present in our daily lives and the damage they can do.

We added the emphasis. Yes, chemicals can do damage, and reporting about that is certainly worth encouraging. But the premise of this series, and the shilling for contributions that accompanies it, does its own kind of damage—to the public’s acceptance of evidence-based science. The fact is we are all chemicals, as is everything around us, and to turn the word into a pejorative exploits people’s lack of understanding of complex issues and promotes unwarranted fears. That may be good clickbait but it’s lousy journalism.

Chemicals are about trade-offs. We use them in every aspect of our lives. Yes, there are cases in which they can be misused and some chemicals that have been approved for use never should have been. But that’s not the informed perspective reflected in this series. Rather, The Guardian indulges in chemophobic scare headlines and reporting; moreover it has contracted with activists who view science as a tool to promote their personal ideology. That’s unethical.

The Guardian continues to ask readers for donations to help support what amounts to advocacy journalism, disconnected from traditional journalistic ethics. As of June 12, it’s raised more than $90,000 toward its goal of $150,000. The newspaper routinely solicits donations from readers (it doesn’t have a paywall like many high-end journalism sites such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post), which is admirable, as it provides news access to the general public. But it’s unusual, and some say unethical, to ask for money for what amounts to an advocacy-based project with articles by writers with a well-known bias on the fringes of the science mainstream.

Years ago, The Guardian carried a regular column by Ben Goldacre called “Bad Science”, which critiqued poor science and science reporting, but it was discontinued in 2o11. Over the past 8 years, The Guardian’s science coverage has become increasingly erratic, leaning more and more into embracing advocacy positions and often rejecting consensus science. This current highly ideological Toxic America series, justified as a form of ‘citizen journalism’, throws a toxic cloud over all journalism, not just science reporting.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield 

Jon Entine is the executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

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