John Stossel and ABC News on
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity:
On January 3, 1997, ABC aired a 20/20 program that included a segment on multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) by reporter John Stossel. It was promoted as part of a 5-day series by Mr. Stossel on "junk science"--although it actually was a prime example of "junk journalism." As documented below, many of the statements made about MCS, MCS patients, and the medical practice of Dr. Grace Ziem, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of chemical injury, were grossly misleading distortions of the facts.
Misleading Statements Broadcast by ABC Facts Known to ABC But Not Reported
1. In his introduction to the Stossel story, Hugh Downs described it as about "people who say they are allergic to almost everything." Chemical sensitivity and allergy are not the same, although a random survey of the general population published in 1995 found that, of the 1/3 who reported symptoms of chemical sensitivity, half also had allergies and vice versa.
2. Dr. Ziem was introduced as a prominent clinical ecologist. Dr. Ziem's letterhead clearly identifies her as an occupational and environmental medicine physician. She is not a clinical ecologist and has never identified herself as such. Her views on the diagnosis and treatment of MCS are based on the peer-reviewed medical literature and the experience she has gained from following over 200 patients. ABC also failed to note that Dr. Ziem has postgraduate degrees from both Harvard and Johns Hopkins and is currently a part-time faculty member at both Hopkins and the Univ.of Maryland School of Medicine as well as co-investigator in the Johns Hopkins Multi-Center Study of MCS Immunology.
3. Dr. Ziem was described as being often in court. Dr. Ziem testifies in court less than once a year on average, and usually only in cases involving her own patients.
4. Dr. Ziem was described as a frequent witness in lawsuits. In 1996, Dr. Ziem gave one deposition for a toxic tort case and testified at one Workers' Compensation hearing.
5. The two phony patients sent by ABC to Dr. Ziem were described as having received a brief physical exam and then being given a 16-page questionnaire. These patients--like all new patients seen by Dr. Ziem--were first asked to complete a questionnaire and then given a head-to-toe physical examination, including a complete neurologic exam and mental status exam. The entire procedure is more comprehensive than the average annual physical exam and lasts several hours. The phony patients were seen for 4 hours each!
6. John Stossel said that "if a doctor is telling you that chemicals are making you sick, it's natural to feel sick," and Hugh Downs said "some doctors could be making it worse," implying that those like Dr. Ziem who treat MCS seriously are making their patients sick through the power of suggestion. There is no published evidence supporting ABC's claim that MCS is simply a belief system induced in patients by their physicians. Dr. Ziem requires that new patients complete an extensive standardized questionnaire about their medical history before she ever sees them or even speaks to them. This includes questions about what kinds of symptoms patients experience when exposed to chemicals in different situations. Dr. Ziem's diagnosis of MCS is always confirmed by laboratory evidence showing changes consistent with chemical injury, either as reported in the literature or as commonly found in her other MCS patients. Misleading Statements Broadcast by ABC Facts Known to ABC page 2 But Not Reported
7. Dr. Ziem's questionnaire was criticized for asking about common symptoms like "do you ever forget what you read or crave sweets?" The questionnaire very specifically directs patients to indicate how often each symptom appears. ABC failed to note that MCS patients characteristically experience more symptoms more frequently than healthy people. ABC also failed to mention that these questions were developed and described in peer-reviewed literature by researchers at Johns Hopkins, as indicated in the credits on the questionnaire.2
8. Mr. Stossel said Dr. Ziem told these women--the phony patients sent by ABC--not to get pregnant. Only one of the phony patients--Julie Stone-- asked about whether she should get pregnant. Dr. Ziem told her that she had seen only one MCS patient who became pregnant: a high school student with very mild chemical sensitivity who, by her tenth week of pregnancy, experienced such serious deterioration in her health that her Catholic obstetrician aborted the fetus to save her life. Dr. Ziem advised against pregnancy until the results of MCS-related lab tests were received. (The endocrine disruption often seen in MCS patients can affect pregnancy.) Dr. Ziem later wrote to Ms. Stone telling her that she did not have MCS, implying that there was no problem with pregnancy.
9. Dr. Ziem's office was said to give legal advice. A short section of Dr. Ziem's "Environmental Control Plan" is entitled "Legal Advice" but this merely tells patients that if they have legal issues of concern they should consult a knowledgeable attorney with experience in the area. This does not constitute giving "legal advice" any more than telling someone who feels sick to consult a physician constitutes "medical advice."
10. The American College of Physicians was said not to recognize chemical sensitivity as a disease. According to a December 9, 1996, memo from the ACP's Dorothy Degler, "the American College of Physicians does not have a position statement on multiple chemical sensitivity. This information comes from Howard Shapiro, Vice President of Public Policy in our Washington, DC office."
11. Some (unidentified) doctors reportedly said that building places like Ecology House is the worst thing we can do for these people. No evidence for this opinion was cited. The program failed to note that constructing less toxic housing is consistent with the fundamental "dose-response" principle of toxicology: lowering the exposure or dose is the most direct way of lowering the harm or adverse effect. It also failed to mention two published studies of chemically sensitive patients that found avoiding and reducing exposures was associated with a substantial reduction in symptoms and more effective than any other form of therapy.3,4 In any case, the cited problems with Ecology House were due to builder's use of construction materials that MCS experts had recommended against.
12. A study by Dr. Don Jewett was described as showing that MCS patients could not differentiate between exposure to chemicals and salt water. This 1990 study, entitled "A double-blind study of symptom provocation to determine food sensitivity," was not about chemicals at all. As is clear from the title, it was about sensitivities to foods (food allergies). The program did not mention a double-blind study by Dr. Eloise Kailin published in 1963 that showed chemically sensitive patients were able to distinguish between fresh water and water stored in soft plastic food containers.5 Misleading Statements Broadcast by ABC Facts Known to ABC page 3 But Not Reported
13. Researchers were said to be unable to confirm the existence of MCS because patients reacted the same when exposed to problem chemicals as fake ones. The masking odors used by these researchers (at Denver's Allergy Research Institute) included oil of almond and oil of lemon. Oil of almond contains benzaldehyde, which has neurotoxic properties similar to formaldehyde, and oil of lemon is an irritant. Their use to cover up the smells of both the problem and fake chemicals completely invalidates the results.
14. Dr. Ronald Gots was described as a toxicology expert who has worked for industry and government. Dr. Gots is a pharmacologist with no formal training or certification in toxicology. The program also failed to mention that Dr. Gots has not treated or seen patients of his own for 20 years and has never been the treating physician for a chemically sensitive patient. He practiced medicine for only a few years before becoming a full time consultant and legal witness for the chemical industry and other corporations, for whom he has often testified against MCS patients. For more information about Dr. Gots and the four industry-supported organizations that he directs, contact MCS Referral and Resources at (410) 448-3319.
15. John Stossel said the two phony patients sent to Dr. Ziem were fairly healthy and answered her questions honestly. Had the phony patients said they were healthy, Dr. Ziem would never have given them an appointment, as she is a specialist who only sees patients who suffer from chemical or other toxic injury and/or chemical sensitivity. That the phony patients pretended to suffer from chemical sensitivity in order to see how Dr. Ziem would diagnose them was admitted by ABC assistant producer Pamela Troutman in a conversation with a colleague of Dr. Ziem's at Mt. Sinai College of Medicine in New York.
16. John Stossel said that the state of Maryland dropped the criminal charges brought against him and others at ABC for allegedly recording Dr. Ziem without her consent after an investigation. No investigation was conducted. The charges were dropped by the State's Attorney before a preliminary hearing was even held because attorneys for the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post invoked Maryland's shield statute. This barred their reporters from testifying about an interview with John Stossel and the phony patients during which Stossel himself acknowledged that Dr. Ziem's comments had been taped. Since ABC later denied any tapes were made, the charges had to be dropped for lack of other evidence.
Don't be deceived by Junk Journalism!
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3 LeRoy J, Davis TH, Jason LA. 1996. Treatment efficacy: A survey of 305 MCS patients. The CFIDS Chronicle, Winter 1996, 52-52.
4 Lax MB, Henneberger PK. 1995. Patients with multiple chemical sensitivities in an occupational health clinic: presentation and follow-up. Archives of Environmental Health 50:425-31.
5 Kailin E, Brooks C. 1963. Systemic toxic reactions to soft plastic food containers: a double-blind study. Med Ann Washington DC 32(1):1-8.
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