The New Engineer

Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Whoever pays the piper, calls the tune', Engineers Australia, September 1999, p. 60.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

When the contract between John Laws and the banks was exposed recently, the question was raised of the neutrality and trustworthiness of media personalities and journalists who are paid, sponsored by, or receive perks from, private interests.

A similar question can be asked of scientists who receive funding or are employed by private interests. Can this influence their expert opinion? Can scientific results be bought in the way that media opinion can be bought? Occasionally this sort of purchase of science comes to light, just as it does with the media.

The health and environmental effects of dioxin have been the subject of fierce debate for more than 20 years. Throughout the 1980s, the only generally agreed human effect of dioxin was chloracne, a skin disease that can be disfiguring but is not generally fatal. This was despite many studies undertaken during the late 1970s and 1980s indicating otherwise. Nevertheless, a handful of studies funded by Monsanto and BASF, which purported to show no health effects from dioxin exposure, apart from chloracne, proved disproportionately influential.

Some of the Monsanto-funded studies have since been questioned as fraudulent. Monsanto conducted epidemiological studies in the mid-1980s of workers exposed in a 1949 accident at a Monsanto plant, where herbicides were being manufactured. At the time the studies were conducted, Monsanto faced having to pay out millions of dollars in lawsuits to Vietnam veterans and to its factory workers, who claimed that they were suffering ill effects from exposure to dioxin.

Monsanto claimed that ther studies showed that exposure to dioxin caused no ill-effects apart from an increased risk of getting chloracne. Three of its studies were reported on or published in major prestigious scientific journals such as Scientific American, Science and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

However Monsanto's studies were discredited some years later during a court case, when Monsanto's medical director admitted that Monsanto scientists: "had knowingly omitted five deaths from the exposed study group and had further reclassified four exposed workers as unexposed, in order to equalize the death rates in the exposed and unexposed workers. The exposed workers, Dr. Roush admitted, had 18 cancer deaths instead of the 9 deaths reported by Monsanto, an over-all cancer death rate 65 percent higher than the normal population rate."[1]

Medical records, obtained by Greenpeace, of thirty-seven of the exposed Monsanto workers studied for four years following the 1949 accident show that the workers suffered "aches, pain, fatigue, nervousness, loss of libido, irritability and other symptoms... active skin lesions, [and] definite patterns of psychological disorders" but that study officially reported only the skin lesions.[2]

A BASF study of workers exposed to dioxin in an industrial accident at a BASF chemical plant in Germany in 1953 was also found to have "presented the data in a way that disguised the cancers."[2] An epidemiologist hired by the workers found that two workers suffering from chloracne were placed in the low-exposure or non-exposed group whilst 20 plant supervisers, whom he claimed were not exposed, were included in the exposed group to dilute the results. If those 20 people had not been included in the exposed group, the study would have demonstrated a high incidence of cancer among the workers.[3]

A court case, filed in 1979 by Vietnam veterans and their families against Dow Chemical and other chemical manufacturers, was settled out of court in 1984 after the chemical companies tendered evidence of the Monsanto and BASF industry studies, which they claimed showed exposure to dioxin caused no long-term health effects apart from chloracne. Seven chemical companies agreed to pay $180 million to the veterans whilst denying that Agent Orange had caused their health complaints.

It seems that the folk widsom that observes "whoever pays the piper, calls the tune" applies just as well to areas of scientific research as it does to radio broadcasting.


  1. Quoted in David Lapp, 'Defenders of Dioxin: The Corporate Campaign to Rehabilitate Dioxin', Multinational Monitor (October 1991), p. 12l.
  2. Lois Marie Gibbs and CCHW, Dying from Dioxin (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995), pp.5-6.
  3. Peter Montague, 'Dioxins and Cancer: Fraudulent Studies', Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, No. 171 (1990).