Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Slippery Lawyers Cause Litigation Cancer

Fake reporting isn't restricted to political stories from CBS. Over at James Glassman's Tech Central Station, a great deal of Web space is devoted to exposing junk science, rhetorically dressed "evidence" more intended to impress gullible juries in torts trials than demonstrate competent research. Of late, for instance, a massive lawsuit has been initiated against Teflon (TM) manufacturers. Gregory Conko and Henry I. Miller, authors of 2004's The Frankenfood Myth, go right at the chemistry of this complaint:

The radical Environmental Working Group has charged that the billions of meals worldwide prepared every day on Teflon cookware are being contaminated with "Teflon toxins," and two Florida-based law firms have filed a $5 billion class-action suit in eight states against the manufacturer, DuPont, for "failing" to warn consumers about the product's alleged dangers...these charges are bogus. And that really fries us.

The truth is that an EPA advisory panel has recommended more testing of a chemical known as PFOA, which is used to make non-stick coatings...However, both Teflon and PFOA have been the subject of numerous studies, and there is not a shred of evidence that either poses a human health risk...high-dose test methodology is...totally irrelevant to real world exposures...Most compelling of all, PFOA is not present in the actual non-stick cookware coating -- including pots and pans coated with Teflon...Even the chronically over-cautious European Food Safety Administration recently dismissed the trumped up concerns and allowed the continued use of non-stick coatings in cookware.

How do such lawsuits get started? If there is the slightest possibility that a substance might cause cancer, that's a start (and a reasonable one, until you start to dig below the headlines and talking head chatter). Another key consideration is how many people are exposed. That part might be described as "lawyer math." If ten million people bought Teflon cookware last year, that's ten million potential clients. Even at a few hundred dollars apiece, consider that a common fee for the law firm is 30% of the reward. In a one hundred million dollar out-of-court settlement, the most common kind of arrangement for these suits, that's thirty million for the law firm: lawyer math! That might even seem reasonable, until you begin to notice that there's something missing in the torts complaint. For instance, in the long dead issue of cyclamates, those artificial sweeteners that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 60s and 70s, cancer-causing dosages in rats were roughly equivalent to a human drinking several hundred cans of soda per day for five years. I've heard of some extraordinary bladders, but not even Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox could have kept up that pace. And it's not only the fabulous expense of settling these cases that's undercutting the economy, but the increasing use of excerpted or wholly fabricated data to support lawsuits. This is where junk science and junk reporting in politics meet. Both lawyers and reporters are setting standards of "truth" that are not only disruptive and destructive, but undercut public life by substituting a web of half-truths for public discourse. You can read the rest of the article here.


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