Thu. Aug 18th, 2022

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Science.]

By Kathleen Hefferon
Real Clear Science

A recent public release from a graduate student at George Washington University claimed insights from old data answers new questions in newly published research. These new insights claimed they found “high” herbicide exposures which were associated with serious negative health outcomes in women and children – extraordinary and serious claims from a prestigious institution published in a peer-reviewed journal.

However, a review – that both the institution and publisher should have done – shows bias, undisclosed conflicts, clear violations of institutional and publishing ethical standards, and lack of evidence as the hallmarks for these claims. This research does raise new questions – questions for George Washington University and the journal Environmental Health. 

When academics lend their names, and that of their institutions, to special interest group campaigns, they put their employers’ reputations on the line. So, it is curious why the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health would choose to lend its prestige to the research arm of a notorious anti-pesticide campaign. 

In a study published in the journal Environmental Health last month [Feb 10, 2022], GW researchers claimed they had discovered three in five Americans tested positive for “high” levels of herbicide residues, which they represented as a human health risk. The publication’s ethics disclosures stated the work received “no funding,” and the GW authors denied any conflicts of interest. The same couldn’t be said be said of another co-author, not from GW, whose name raised eyebrows among watchdog groups and academics who follow pesticide health risk claims. 

Charles Benbrook is an economist and consultant to the organic food industry and pesticide class action lawyers. He was a listed co-author representing the Heartland Health Research Alliance (HHRA). And, shortly after GW’s press release hit the wires, Benbrook was promoting the research as the work product of an ongoing HHRA campaign called The Heartland Study – for which he serves as executive director. 

Benbrook’s project lists GW as a partner organization, and Milken School professor Melissa J. Perry was the project’s co-lead investigator. Perry and HHRA have previously acknowledged her lab is funded by HHRA for this herbicide-related research. Like the published article, GW’s press release made no mention of HHRA or their researchers’ affiliations with and funding from the so-called Heartland Study. 

Benbrook’s reputation has yet to recover from Washington State University’s decision to terminate his last academic contract in the wake of the revelation that Benbrook’s research was solely funded (without disclosure) by organic food industry interests who also happened to be clients of Benbrook’s for-profit consulting firm. In this new GW study, Benbrook fell into old habits. In prior work, Benbrook represented himself as solely affiliated with Washington State without disclosing that organic industry donors and clients were responsible for 100 percent of his university salary and research expenses.  

Multiple mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, the Huffington Post, The Hill, and other academic publishing sources noted the ethical lapse, some suggesting Benbrook was offering “science for hire” to those willing to pay. Reasonable observers might think academics and institutions agreeing to partner with Benbrook would apply a modicum of diligence to any new endeavor. 

The latest GW study’s lead author is a graduate student who formerly served as board secretary for HHRA and her research position at GW is funded by Benbrook. Her boss, GW professor Perry, is the listed co-lead investigator at HHRA’s Heartland Study whose lab also receives funding for this specific pesticide research project from HHRA. HHRA’s fundraising materials and website list GW as a formal institutional partner of the NGO. All of this undermines the denial of external funding and conflicts made by Perry and her other colleagues. 

Where does HHRA get money for this research? According to news reports and Heartland Study promotional materials (some since removed from their website), the study’s top donors include Benbrook’s organic industry and pesticide litigator clients. These clients profit handsomely from claims that pesticides harm human health.   

Even in the presence of such  conflicts, readers might expect that GW’s internal institutional review process and the publisher’s peer review would be enough to ensure the published findings bearing their names meet rigorous standards of proof. Institutional standards and peer review are supposed to prevent conflicted individuals from publishing unfounded claims. Yet, this appears to be not the case. 

Nobody at GW appears to have flagged this research, which was previewed in a university showcase event eight months prior to publication as a joint project with the HHRA campaign. This campaign collaboration and partnership with the HHRA NGO was omitted from GW’s press release and final paper.    

The paper’s peer reviewers, Susan Kegley and Michael Antoniou, insisted they adhered to the ethics policy of the Environmental Health journal. Yet neither appear qualified under the publication’s rules requiring that “independent experts” without conflicts review the work. They are both frequent participants in anti-pesticide campaigns with an interest in the paper’s findings.  

Reviewer Michael Antoniou is a listed “partner” of HHRA for the herbicide-research Heartland Study. Antoniou is also a recent (and frequent) co-publisher with Benbrook on other papers – including a recent paper in which HHRA funding for the research by Antoniou was acknowledged. Antonio’s HHRA research partner Robin Mesnage, like Benbrook, is a paid consultant to pesticide litigators, and has had prior herbicide-related published research retracted.  

Even more disturbing is the fact that Antoniou has a history of collaborating directly with a known Russian disinformation source, which funded the translation of his book on GMO myths as well as his travel to Russia to promote it. He and co-author Clair Robinson were in fact hosted by Elena Sharoykina, a Putin-appointed member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. She is currently spreading disinformation about the Russia/Ukraine conflict, alleging that it’s tied to multinational agribusiness spreading of GMOs and the U.S. military supply of genetically modified bio-weapons to Ukraine. 

The second reviewer, Susan Kegley, is the former chief scientist for the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) who runs a for-profit pesticide testing company. Her clients include NGOs like PAN and joint Benbrook affiliated and organic industry-funded projects. Like Antoniou, Kegley has also published recent papers with Benbrook which acknowledged HHRA funding of the work. 

It’s not just that the reviewers and reviewed collaborated once or twice. They’ve collaborated on at least seven occasions within the past five years. Partnering with and receiving funding from the articles’ sole sponsor along with frequent joint publications calls for excluding these reviewers.  

In this case, neither Kegley nor Antoniou found issue with the paper’s characterization of finding “high” levels of herbicides in subjects’ urine – even though the actual levels found were thousands of times lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own conservative safety standard. The Centers for Disease Control reviewed the same data and found no safety concerns. The extensive history of published research typically characterizes these levels as low and well-below established EPA health-risk thresholds. They certainly do not qualify for a “high level” label nor correlative allegations to specific health risks.

Advocacy masquerading as science — denying the findings of both EPA and CDC — is par for the course with Mr. Benbrook and his pesticide litigator and organic industry clients. George Washington University and the Environmental Health journal need to investigate this matter if they wish to preserve a reputation for academic integrity and transparency. The other listed research partners of Benbrook’s so-called Heartland Study campaign, like Boston College, Indiana University School of Medicine, and Franciscan Health Hospitals might want to review their ethics exposures here as well. 

Kaathleen Hefferson, Ph.D., teachers microbiology at Cornell University.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Science.]

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