UN expert slams chemical industries for spreading fake news about risks

The weed killer Round-up has been accused of causing cancer. In May 2019 a couple in California won 1.7 billion euros in a case brought against German pharmaceutical group Bayer. The group has denied the allegations. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/CJ Gunther)

Plastics, pesticides and other chemical industries have time and again manipulated information to distract consumers and policy makers from the harmful effects of their products, according to a UN expert on hazardous wastes.

Fake news is not only a social media phenomenon or a propaganda tool used to influence elections. Chemical producers also spread misinformation to hide the harmful effects that toxic substances can have on humans and the environment, UN special rapporteur on hazardous wastes Marcos Orellana warned this week. 

In his report, presented before the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, Orellana slammed industry tactics to push back on regulations by undermining existing science-based evidence. He cites the asbestos and pesticide industries that have claimed that their products are non-toxic or can be used in safe dosages. He also singles out the plastic industry for using the “false promise of recycling” and fossil fuels for spreading lies about climate change to delay tougher regulations on hazardous substances.

“The manufacturing of doubt about the risks and harms of hazardous substances by producers of deadly products has become a lucrative business. Certain business entities specialise in deliberately spreading ignorance and confusion in society,” the report stated.

To this end, industries use a number of tactics, ranging from funding research to cast doubt on existing evidence of the risks of their chemicals, to pouring money into influencing policy makers and regulatory bodies to block restrictive legislation or obtain unwarranted approvals for their products.

“Greenwashing” campaigns, where companies give the false impression that progress is being made to ensure that their products are safe through meaningless efforts, are also a common tactic to appease public outcry.

Scientists are also targeted for their work and can become the object of intimidation campaigns to dissuade them from exposing the dangers of certain products. 

“Scientists who sound the alarm on risks and harms associated with hazardous substances should be regarded and protected as human rights defenders (...) including whistleblowers,” said Orellana at an online event in Geneva on Wednesday.

Much of these tactics were coined in the 1950s by the tobacco industry, said Laura Vandenberg, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, also speaking at the event. 

Vandenberg and her team have been studying the industries of tobacco, coal, sugar, and pesticides and identified up to 28 tactics that range from blaming other causes or recruiting influential people such as politicians and experts to defend their products, to outright hiding incriminating evidence of the dangers of their chemicals and posing as defenders of health.

While the exposure of such unethical and sometimes criminal practices has paved the way for national and international instruments to improve transparency and monitoring, they are far from being eradicated. 

In June, four scientists working for the US Environment Protection Agency accused it of tampering with scientific assessments to fast track the approval of dangerous chemicals. 

“One of the best things that we can do to [fight] the use of manufactured doubt is to teach people, including decision makers, because we are all prone to falling victim to logical fallacies,” Vandenberg said.

But fighting misinformation is an uphill battle, particularly in the age of the internet and social media. Experts say that fake news spreads faster than fact-based news through social media platforms and, once it’s out there, it can be incredibly hard to reign in. As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, false and misleading claims about health are shared quickly and easily by users. 

Facebook recently said it would ramp up efforts to crack down on climate misinformation, but science misinformation touches upon a much wider area than just climate change.

Such practices, according to Orellana, are a “direct attack to the right to science”, in this case meaning the right to access and impart science-based knowledge about the risks that substances pose for humans and the environment so that safeguards can be put in place.

To fight off these efforts, mechanisms that bridge the gap between science and policy makers are key. However, they are not immune to corruption or conflicts of interests influencing their work, the report stresses.

Experts and countries are making the case for an intergovernmental science policy platform for chemicals and waste to be created, much like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The panel that would look at research on chemical wastes to identify particular risks and provide options for governments to deal with them accordingly. 

Switzerland has called for such a mechanism to be discussed at the upcoming UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi February. “We need an effective channel connecting academia and policy-making,” said Felix Wertli, head of global affairs at the Swiss federal office for the nvironment, who also attended the event.