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THE CLINICAL ECOLOGY SCAM

by Peter Huber

Forbes, October 2, 1989 at Pg. 232

Copyright 1989 by Peter Huber.

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Some clever lawyers have found a new disease: "chemically induced AIDS." This new "disease" has little to do with the real scourge that has reached near-epidemic proportions and is spread chiefly by sexual contact and contaminated needles. This new kind of "AIDS" is allegedly spread by the U.S. chemical industry. No kidding. Last November a Missouri jury awarded $49 million against Alcolac, Inc. on the strength of just such a claim.

The scientific veneer for this and similar lawsuits comes from the "clinical ecologists," a tiny cabal of fringe representatives of the medical profession, a fringe that includes some family practitioners, psychiatrists, urologists, pediatricians and allergists. Minuscule exposures to environmental pollutants, say these medical types, upset the immune system. Air pollution, solvents, pesticides, plastics, colognes, synthetic fabrics, felt-tip pens and tap water: Almost anything will do the trick.

The effects are as numerous and amorphous as the causes. Depression, absentmindedness, diarrhea or constipation, sneezing, headaches, muscle pain, pounding heart and, oh yes, cancer, too. With faces quite straight, two founders of modern clinical ecology dedicate their work to "all patients who have ever been called neurotic, hypochondriac, hysterical, or starved for attention while suffering from environmentally induced illness."

For many years, the clinical ecologists sold only quack therapies, one of the more popular ones being homeopathy (the hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you routine). But recently, in eager collaboration with plaintiffs' lawyers, they've recognized there's more to be made in slandering the snake than in selling the snake oil.

Start with a well-heeled corporate target -- a tire company perhaps (Firestone was one early nominee), a carpet manufacturer (Polish Power, Inc.) or chemical company (Farley/Northwest's Velsicol Chemical subsidiary, W. R. Grace or Alcolac, a subsidiary of a British mining company). Pick a pollutant and an exposed population. Then prepare the technicolor displays. There are dozens of lab tests for measuring the health of the complex immune system. Results always vary widely, even among perfectly healthy subjects. So when the labs are done with the testing, you'll have a huge chart to trundle into court, with rows of plaintiffs' names, beside column after column of numbers. Color every measurement that falls outside some arbitrary "reference range" an ominous red.

Now call your favorite clinical ecologist to the stand. There's chemical AIDS in the air, he'll attest. Just look at that red. Which explains the plaintiffs' coughing, constipation or cancer. No matter what pollutant is involved, or in what amounts. No matter how common or rare, trivial or grave, the symptoms may be.

Like all seductive frauds, clinical ecology has just enough shadows of truth to make it plausible. Chemical allergies do occur. Some chemicals, at some dosages, can depress the immune system; transplant patients wouldn't survive without them. And some immune system effects, mostly modest and reversible, have been observed after high chemical exposures in industrial accidents.

Nonetheless, the chemical AIDS claims now routinely peddled in court are fantasies. So says the American Academy of Allergy & Immunology. And the National Center for Health Care Technology. And the California Medical Association.

But just don't ask a jury, unless you're in the mood to gamble on the outcome. Clinical ecologists spin an awfully good yarn, most especially in court, unshackled from science's demands for blind tests, written exposition and peer review. "And if they can't win the case on immune dysfunction," says New York defense lawyer Arvin Maskin, "they may still collect for health-care monitoring or the distress of it all." The clinical ecologist who coined the term "chemical AIDS" deserves every penny he ever collected from the plaintiffs' bar.

On the brighter side, several courts have recently ruled against any chemical AIDS testimony well before trial. And while it affirmed the Alcolac verdict -- an embarrassing reflection on what passes for science in Missouri courts -- an appellate court did at least call for a reassessment of the damages. But with contingency fees of 30% or so, the lawyers behind these claims can afford quite a few setbacks between $49 million wins.

That, in any event, is what they're figuring. They continue to raise chemical AIDS claims in one court after the next. In today's anything-goes liability climate, each new claim is greeted seriously at the courthouse door. One at a time, jurists and juries are then painfully tutored on the facts behind claims that mainstream science rejected long ago. And when they fail the final, as they occasionally do, it's payday for the lawyers.

What society spends on even a single chemical AIDS lawsuit (not to mention the $49 million judgment award that may follow) would fund a university research laboratory for years -- including a lot of research into the genuine AIDS.

Clinical ecology is a scam. The medical profession recognizes it as such, but the courts don't seem to. So in America today it's becoming more profitable to pursue a chemical company than the virus that really causes AIDS.


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