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Federal Grants to 'Children's Health Centers' Fund Junk Science

Environmental activists threw an ever-predictable tantrum after Environmental Protection Agency officials indicated last month that they may eliminate EPA grants to a number of university-based children’s environmental health centers. Headlining their rhetoric were assertions that defunding these centers represents a heartless attempt to undermine children’s health. Lost in this melee is the fact that these centers don’t have any measurable impact on children’s health, nor do they add much to the body of research on that topic. To a great extent, these centers simply waste taxpayer dollars while funding junk science and environmental activism. 

For a couple of decades, the EPA has provided half of the funding for these centers, and the National Institutes for Environmental Health Science (NIEHS), a division of the National Institutes of Health, provides the other half. NIEHS, which has a penchant for funding junk science, will likely continue funding at least some of these centers, but activists whine that the EPA cuts may force some of these “research” centers to shut down.

If some centers do shut down, that would be a good thing. If their “research” is so valuable, they can raise private funds rather than siphon taxpayer dollars. After all, these so-called research centers are not really independent, objective scientific research programs as one might believe because they are housed at universities. A close look at their activities reveals that they focus on generating “research” designed to serve an activist-focused, anti-chemical agenda. We will examine several of these in a series of blog posts, starting with this post.

Before jumping into our first example, it’s worth noting that much of the “research” these groups produce consists of nothing more than statistical analyses that attempt to find an association between a chemical and a health effect. Such associations do not prove cause and effect relationships, and they often happen by mere chance. 

In fact, the chance of generating a statistically significant positive association is more common than you might think, as detailed by David Randall and Christopher Welser in “The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science.” They note that researchers apply a generally accepted standard for determining whether a finding is “statistically significant.” This standard is designed to ensure that positive associations will occur by chance no more than 5 percent of the time. While that may not seem like much, “[a] scientist who runs enough statistical tests can expect to get ‘statistically significant’ results one time in twenty just by chance alone,” explain Randall and Welser.

This reality has fostered both unintentional bias and scientific mischief, including the propensity for researchers to work the data until it generates a positive finding. As James Mills of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lamented back in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine: “‘If you torture your data long enough, they will tell you whatever you want to hear’ has become a popular observation in our office.” The National Association of Scholars study highlights one outrageous case where Prof. Brian Wansink, head of Cornell University’s food behavior research lab, literally bragged in a blog post that he had schooled one of his students on how to churn data to generate positive results and get them published.

Even when researchers do not torture data, many positive associations will occur by mere chance or unintentional bias. Stanford Professor of Medicine John Ioannidis demonstrated in a research article in 2005 that most published research findings are false positives. He explained: “Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look into these children’s environmental health centers—the type of studies they are producing, their stated goals and objectives, as well as their follow up activities. You will see that there appears to be a trend: many of these groups appear to start with a pre-determined conclusion about chemicals, and they even state how they plan to develop research to demonstrate those effects. Then they use that research to promote, and even lobby for, regulations and anti-chemical activism. 

In this post, we examine Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH). This center produced the junk science study on the pesticide chlorpyrifos that the Obama-era EPA tried to use to impose a ban. CCCEH researchers measured traces of chlorpyrifos in umbilical cords shortly after women gave birth and then conducted cognitive tests of the related children several years later. They reported that the children whose mothers’ umbilical cords had the highest levels of chlorpyrifos experienced greater developmental delays.

However, EPA’s Science Advisory Panel pointed out numerous problems with the CCCEH study, not the least of which is that the blood cord data they used is not an appropriate measurement of actual exposures to children years later. You can find more details in my paper on the topic.  Because of this one junk science study, the Trump EPA is now battling with environmental activists in court to prevent a ban of this useful agrochemical.

News reports related to chlopyrifos have presented the CCCEH as if it were an objective scientific body, when in reality the center’s real focus is environmental activism. I pointed this out in detail in my paper, but here are some highlights.

On its website, CCCEH claims to be “ambassadors of preventive measures to protect children from environmental threats,” and among their activities are community outreach “efforts to remove unsafe chemicals and toxicants in our communities.” The group also states that they focus on “generating new findings” that link chemicals to developmental problems, which they can then use in various community “campaigns” to eliminate these chemicals in commerce. In other words, they are not necessarily looking to produce unbiased results, they appear to be engaged in “data mining.”  

The center also works closely with other environmental activist and lobbying organizations that share its anti-chemical ideology. Among the “partner organizations“ are a number of left-wing environmental activist groups including the Environmental Working Group, the Pesticide Action Network of North America, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CCCEH also promotes questionable research produced by other similarly situated, quasi-activist organizations. Their website, for example, highlights recent publications produced by another activist-oriented “Children’s Health Center” housed within the World Health Organization. These WHO publications make many unsupportable claims about pollution and children’s health. For example, the WHO issued a press release claiming that 1.7 million children die every year from “pollution,” and the implication is “industrial pollution” and free enterprise are to blame. Based on this regressive world view, the “answer” lies in “sustainable development”—i.e., government-managed economies—including such things as government regulation of fossil fuels, pesticides, and other economic activity. You can learn more from this publication.

But the “pollution” to which they refer includes untreated drinking water and heavy smoke related to rudimentary energy sources—challenges related to low-levels of economic development. Hence, the problem isn’t industrial activity; it’s the lack thereof.

Finally, CCCEH displays a particularly unbalanced, anti-pesticide ideology that only discusses negative impacts from pesticides. Specifically, they fail to acknowledge the critical role that these products play in helping farmers provide a safe and affordable food supply or how they help fight disease-carrying vectors from mosquitos to ticks to rats.

In the past, EPA officials may have been happy to fund such activism because they could use it as an excuse to expand their power. Kudos to the current leadership at the EPA for recognizing that taxpayer dollars should never fund activism and related junk science.