Public Comment

Commentary: Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence of Absence

By Gale Garcia
Friday February 29, 2008

In the Jan. 11 issue of the Daily Planet, Fred Massell disparaged Berkeley’s Luddites, and claimed, “While I too wanted to believe the worst about cell phone radiation, it appears that there is no real evidence to show that it causes any actual harm.” 

The same claim has frequently been made about products or technologies that later proved to be very harmful indeed. In many cases, the companies knew that their products were damaging or lethal, and simply lied about it. Two examples that leap to mind are cigarettes and asbestos. 


Cigarette advertising and other lies 

Beneficial health claims and pictures of kindly physicians were used in cigarette advertising during the 1930s through the early 1950s to counter concerns that cigarette smoking might cause health problems. For example, Brown and Williamson claimed that Kools kept the head clear and provided extra protection against colds, and “Doctors agree that Kools are soothing to your throat.” R.J. Reynolds advertised, “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” in magazines from 1946 to 1952. 

In 1950 the first major study that causally linked smoking to lung cancer was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In 1952 an influential article, “Cancer by the Carton,” was published in Reader’s Digest, at the time the most widely read US magazine. The next year cigarette sales fell for the first time in over two decades.  

U.S. tobacco companies formed the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) in 1954, supposedly to sponsor “independent” scientific research, and to keep the debate alive about whether cigarettes were harmful. 

The formation of the TIRC was announced in an advertisement in the New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers entitled “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.” It read in part: “For more than 300 years tobacco has given solace, relaxation, and enjoyment to mankind. At one time or another during those years critics have held it responsible for practically every disease of the human body. One by one these charges have been abandoned for lack of evidence.” 


Asbestos, a cornucopia of corporate deceit 

The largest asbestos manufacturer, Johns Manville, knew by the early 1930s of the potential lethality of exposure to asbestos, yet withheld the information for decades. In 1948, the corporation adopted the policy of not informing employees when their medical exams revealed the lung disease, asbestosis. 

In the 1940s the Raysbestos corporation paid for a study of the effects of asbestos exposure. When it demonstrated the connection between asbestos and respiratory disease, the CEO of Raysbestos, Sumner Simpson, and the management of Johns Manville agreed to keep the information secret. Correspondence between the two companies, the “Sumner Simpson Papers” were discovered at the Raysbestos headquarters in 1977, opening the floodgates to litigation that has taken place since. 

W.R. Grace & Co. owned a mine in Libby, Montana which produced vermiculite which was laced with tremolite, a particularly dangerous form of asbestos. This information was concealed for decades, while the mine dispersed about 5,000 pounds of asbestos fibers over the town per day of operation. Approximately 1200 people, in a town of 8000, were sickened by asbestos related illness. 

So egregious were the practices and the cover-up conducted by W.R. Grace that seven of its executives were indicted in 2005 for conspiracy, clean air act violations, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. Due to aggressive pre-trial litigation, the trial has still not taken place. 


Telecommunications industry: a fresh form of corporate deceit — preemption 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, written largely by lobbyists for the telecommunications industry, was passed by the US Congress with the help of millions of dollars in political contributions from corporations.  

Section 704 of this Act prohibits local governments from rejecting the placement of cell phone towers based upon health concerns as long as the towers conform to Federal Communications Commission standards, even if the placement would be in a residential neighborhood. 

While one clause in Section 704 squelches discussion of health concerns, another clause specifies that cities must support decisions to deny cell phone towers with “substantial evidence contained in a written record.” So cities are required to provide evidence to deny a cell tower application—but some evidence is forbidden. 

When municipalities fail to approve cell towers, the corporations sue, and usually win. Verizon threatened to sue the City of Berkeley because our Zoning Adjustments Board voted against locating 11 cell towers at 2721 Shattuck Ave., a short distance from family homes. Verizon has unlimited funds to spend on litigation; our City Council therefore caved and reversed the ZAB decision. Eleven towers are scheduled to go up in this South Berkeley neighborhood sometime this spring. 

Corporations deceive the public and suppress evidence of harm for as long as they can get away with it. Believe them at your peril. Better yet, don’t believe them at all. 


Gale Garcia is a South Berkeley resident.