THE DAYS ARE LONG GONE WHEN program officers sat around the office like so many forgotten Maytag repairmen, waiting for worthy projects to cross their desks. Today, foundations set much of the public agenda, and nowhere more so than in the area of environmentalism, where foundations collectively spend upwards of $500 million per year. An early leader in charitable giving to environmental activists was the W. Alton Jones Foundation.
The history of W. Alton Jones makes for an interesting study, from the early dirt farmer existence of its founder to the organization’s latter-day focus on environmentalism. It is a transition that has placed the foundation at the forefront of environmental funders, publishing books on environmental hazards and gaining national media attention. It is also a shift that has led, more recently, to major public embarrassment as research funded and popularized by the foundation had to be publicly repudiated by its own author.
Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Jones foundation is also one of America’s leading underwriters of anti-nuclear activism and research. Although its endowment of $323 million is modest in comparison to that of the Ford Foundation, what Jones lacks in size it more than makes up for in intensity of focus, devoting all $20 million of its annual grants to “Sustainable World” and “Secure World” initiatives (according to information from annual reports and the Foundation Center. Jones Foundation staff refused to respond to repeated requests for information for this article.)
Typical grants to environmentalist groups include $150,000 to the Union of Concerned Scientists “to mobilize a national network of scientists to counter misinformation about environmental science and encourage responsible media coverage of environmental issues,” $120,000 to the Clearinghouse on Environ-mental Advocacy and Research for a national clearinghouse “to collect and disseminate information on environmental backlash,” and $100,000 to Environmental Media Services “to mobilize a network of scientists to counter misinformation related to environmental threats to children’s health, and to encourage responsible media coverage.” Almost no grants are given as support for actual scientific research on environmental issues with one notable exception discussed below.
Custodian Makes Good
The old man, W. Alton “Pete” Jones, probably would not have anticipated that the foundation he created in 1944 would one day turn against the industry in which he made his fortune. Pete Jones was a hardheaded, straight-talking pioneer in the development of the natural gas and petroleum industries. Born in 1891, he grew up on a hardscrabble Missouri farm and went from a $45 per month job as a janitor to become one of the nation’s highest paid executives as the head of the Cities Service Company. He successfully navigated Cities Service’s divestiture of its utility subsidiaries as mandated by the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, an ordeal that left him with an abiding distaste for government energy regulation. “The government found a mouse in industry’s pantry,” he once complained about the Public Utilities Act. “To find it, they’re tearing down the house.” His management style was described as “severe” with “minimal small talk” by other Cities executives.
Jones married his childhood sweetheart Nettie Marie Marvin in 1914. During World War II, as German U-boats were sinking U.S. oil tankers by the dozen, Jones was appointed president of the War Emergency Pipelines and oversaw the construction of the vital Big Inch and Little Inch oil pipelines from Texas to the Eastern United States. They were completed just before the Normandy invasion and were under budget and ahead of schedule. He was awarded the Presidential Certificate of Merit for that achievement.
Jones died at age 70 when a commercial jetliner on which he was a passenger crashed shortly after takeoff from Idlewild Airport in New York. He was on his way to join his friend, former President Dwight Eisenhower, in California for a Mexican fishing trip.
Pete Jones left the majority of his fortune to the foundation “to promote the well-being and general good of mankind throughout the world.” This vague admonition to do good left subsequent boards of trustees and staff members with wide latitude to decide how the foundation’s support would be disbursed. For much of its early history, under the guidance of Jones’s widow, the foundation gave primarily to museums, artists, and playwrights. For example, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland, received substantial support from the foundation (Jones owned a 2,800 acre farm near Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore).
Arm Are For Hugging
The direction of foundation support began to shift in the early 1980s, the era of the Nuclear Freeze campaign and hyped up threats of “nuclear winter,” a time when the New Yorker labeled the nuclear arms race as the greatest threat to the global environment. Legions of nonprofits and foundations jumped onto the anti-nuke bandwagon, and the W. Alton Jones Foundation was in the vanguard.
Almost as if on cue, the 1982 buyout of the Cities Service Company by Occidental Petroleum dramatically boosted the value of the foundation’s shares, vaulting it into the ranks of the top 100 richest charities in the United States. Nettie Marie Jones and her two daughters decided to focus on two areas: nuclear arms and the environment. In 1982, they chose Charles H. W. Foster, the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry, to become the director of the foundation.
By 1984, the foundation had decided to “commit $1.2 million to projects on avoidance of war after three generations of the family philanthropy agreed that nuclear war and depletion of resources were the nation’s two overriding concerns,” according to The New York Times. The Boston Globe would later describe Jones as “one of the first of a new wave of environmental charities,” (though Foster cheerfully admitted to the Globe reporter that “Mr. Jones himself had no perceived interest in such things”).
During the 1980s and the early 1990s, the foundation’s interest in supporting the arts hung on by a thread. For example, as recently as 1992, the New Plays Program provided grants totaling $730,000 to support the non-commercial production of plays like Tina How’s “One Shoe Off,” Timothy Mason’s “The Fiery Furnace,” and Elizabeth Egloff’s “The Devils.” But interest in the arts began to fall off with the death in 1991 of Nettie Marie Jones. The most recent annual report reveals no grants outside of the environmental and anti-nuclear programs.
Thus, a charity once focused on supporting the arts and culture radically changed its direction in 1982 at the behest of the younger generation of family members at a time when the “nuclear freeze” furor was in its heyday. And as the threat of nuclear holocaust abated under Ronald Reagan and the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the foundation — like so many others that had been caught up in the trendiness of the anti-nuke crusade — began to devote itself to the even trendier arena of environmentalist projects.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
To head up its giving to green causes, the foundation hired zoologist John Peterson Myers in the early 1990s. Before joining Jones, Myers served as the vice president for science and sanctuaries at the National Audubon Society. He currently serves as the foundation’s director.
Under Myers, Jones has devoted millions of dollars to supporting various environmentalist advocacy groups. But probably its most influential project to date is homegrown. In March 1996, Myers joined with Theo Colborn (who was ensconced as a senior fellow at the foundation) and crusading Boston Globe journalist Dianne Dumanoski to write Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? — A Scientific Detective Story. The book was underwritten by the foundation from conception to its splashy national promotion. Its conclusion, in brief, is that “some man-made chemicals interfere with the body’s own hormones.”
Vice President Al Gore writes in the book’s foreword that studies have linked synthetic chemicals to a whole parade of horribles, including “low sperm counts, infertility, genital deformities, hormonally triggered human cancers such as those of the breast and prostate gland; neurological disorders in children, such as hyperactivity and deficits in attention; and developmental and reproductive problems in wildlife.”
promote the book, Jones enlisted Environmental Media Services (EMS), a PR firm headed by former Gore staffer Arlie Schardt (EMS shares space with the prominent public relations firm Fenton Communications, which helped manage the earlier scare over the growth regulating chemical Alar for the Natural Resources Defense Council). EMS rolled out a major PR campaign that included a national book tour, an appearance on NBC’s Today show by the grandmotherly Colborn, and multiple press conferences at the National Press Club in Washington.
Favorable coverage appeared in nearly all major newspapers, magazines, and television networks. And when one major science journalist — Gina Kolata of The New York Times — expressed skepticism about the claims made in the book, the Environmental Information Center (now the National Environmental Trust, which also received Jones funding) bought a quarter-page ad on the Times’s own editorial page to denounce her. The environmental lobby now plays hardball.
The Great Cancer Scare — Chapter Two
Leaving aside the Times’s indecorous refusal to report junk science as fact, the campaign succeeded in putting the topic of man-made “endocrine disrupters” on the public agenda. Theo Colborn was hailed as a latter-day Rachel Carson and the book was frequently compared to Silent Spring. As it happens, the comparison was apt in a way supporters probably had not intended. In the 1960s, Carson predicted that man-made chemicals would soon set off an epidemic of cancer, but for the last 30 years most cancer rates have barely changed except for those associated with smoking tobacco. Earlier this year, the National Cancer Institute reported that the overall rate of the incidence of cancer in the United States has actually begun to fall.
The Great Cancer Scare launched by Carson should have been put to rest by a definitive 1996 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet. The NAS concluded that levels of both synthetic and natural carcinogens are “so low that they are unlikely to pose an appreciable cancer risk.” And worse yet from the point of view of anti-chemical crusaders, the NAS added that Mother Nature’s own chemicals probably cause more cancer than anything mankind has dreamed up: “[N]atural components of the diet may prove to be of greater concern than synthetic components with respect to cancer risk.”
It was against this backdrop that the Jones foundation launched its new crusade against man-made chemicals. Our Stolen Future is styled as a “scientific detective story,” telling how Colborn stitched together anecdotes, inconclusive studies, and even irrelevant studies into the story of an alleged chemical assault on our endocrine systems. According to Colborn, “researchers have identified at least 51 synthetic chemicals — many of them ubiquitous in the environment — that disrupt the endocrine system in one way or another.” Among the 51 chemicals are organochlorine pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin; PCBs (once used as insulators in electric transformers); and dioxins (byproducts of certain industrial processes). Colborn dubbed these synthetic chemicals “endocrine disrupters” because some can mimic the female sex hormone estrogen while others can behave as anti-estrogens and anti-androgens, etc. Then she makes the big leap and claims that they are having a big effect on humans and wildlife.
Are these synthetic chemicals really causing hormonal harm? Many prominent scientists don’t think so. “Implausible,” asserted the director of the University of California-Berkeley’s National Institute of Environmental Health, Dr. Bruce Ames, in testimony before the U.S. Senate last year. John Giesy, Professor of Toxicology at Michigan State University and past president of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry says, “Frankly, Colborn doesn’t know very much. She reads the entire literature and picks and chooses things that support her preconceived views.” Stephen Safe, a professor at Texas A&M University and a noted expert on environmental estrogens agrees: “If you look at the book carefully, it’s a very unscientific presentation.”
The book’s most sensational claims — that human sperm counts have fallen 50 percent over the last 50 years and that endocrine disrupters are causing increases in breast cancer — are also doubted by most researchers in the field. Such disrupters made their appearance during the past three generations, a period when the average human lifespan has increased from 47 years to over 65 years and global infant mortality rates have dropped from 150 per thousand births to less than 70 per thousand today. Man-made chemicals simply cannot be nearly as great a risk to human health as portentously implied by Myers.
Another major problem for the synthetic endocrine disrupter theory is that the effects mimicked by man-made estrogens are thousands to millions of times weaker than the estrogens naturally produced by the human body. “If you added the total exposure of a woman to estrogen during her lifetime, the stuff that she produces herself would just overweigh the amount that she would be exposed to from the environment by thousands and thousands and thousands-fold,” says Duke University toxicologist Donald McDonnell.
In addition, people are exposed to vastly greater quantities of natural estrogens than they are to synthetic estrogens through common food plants like soybeans, corn, wheat, broccoli, and kidney beans. People absorb 40 million times more natural plant estrogens each day than they do synthetic estrogens.
How then could comparatively weak synthetic estrogens be having the major health impact claimed by Colborn, Dumanoski, and Myers?
Today’s Word is Synergy
Myers believed the answer lay with the work, supported by the Jones foundation, of researcher John MacLachlan at the Xavier/Tulane Center for Bioenvironmental Research in New Orleans. MacLachlan claimed to have discovered that very weak estrogen “mimics” such as toxaphene, endosulfan, and dieldrin became massively potent when combined. In other words, instead of merely being additive, the effects of man-made estrogens would be synergistic.
When this startling result was published in the prestigious scientific journal Science in June, 1996, the magazine rushed to highlight the findings with both an editorial and a popular report. Newspapers around the country reported that endocrine disrupters in combination were much more dangerous than originally thought.
Inevitably, the paper caught the eye of Congress and regulators, appearing just as Congress was considering the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996.
Lynn Goldman, Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was an instant convert. Goldman told the Los Angeles Times she was “astounded by the findings. I just can’t remember a time where I’ve seen data so persuasive as far as making an argument for synergy between chemicals. The results are very clean looking. We are going to need to immediately begin to look at implications of this study and factor it in. This will have very important implications for our research and for managing the risks to public health and the environment. In nature, chemicals do not occur singly.”
In an October 1996 speech to regional EPA pesticide inspectors, the Jones foundation’s Pete Myers himself noted that MacLachlan’s paper had had an significant policy impact: “I believe that we are entering into a new era of scientific awareness about the health risks of pesticide use. And this new understanding has already led to a dramatic shift in the underpinnings of national food safety laws, most obviously the 1996 Food Safety Act.”
Myers added: “The striking thing about MacLachlan’s new findings isn’t the existence of synergistic effects, but their reported magnitude and unpredictability. Using individual small doses of the estrogenic pesticides dieldrin, toxaphene, endosulfan, and chlordane produced little, if any, effect, but when two chemicals were combined, the response was powerfully enhanced. If further experiments confirm these findings, this study will undoubtedly have profound implications for the regulation of chemicals, which are now reviewed individually.”
The problem was that MacLachlan’s findings couldn’t be replicated, either by him or by other scientists. In fact, several laboratories around the country tried for months to confirm the synergistic effects of synthetic estrogens and came up with nothing.
After months of stalling, MacLachlan was forced to publish a complete retraction of his earlier paper in Science. Why couldn’t his laboratory reproduce its results? “I really can’t explain it,” he said. EPA Assistant Administrator Goldman said in an interview that she had heard that MacLachlan’s lab “for some reason lost the yeast cell line that they used to do the assay, so they can’t even exactly replicate the experiment.”
Was the withdrawal of a paper of this significance unusual? Philip Abelson, former editor of Science says, “there have been very very few. I was editor for 22 years and I cannot remember such a clearcut withdrawal.”
The paper’s withdrawal — essentially repudiating its much ballyhooed claim that combinations of synthetic estrogenic compounds posed a big human health problem — received almost no press coverage. It is especially curious that the press, normally so quick to point out which researchers receive industry funding, with an eye to casting doubt on the validity of the research, failed to note that the Center for Bioenvironmental Research had received funding from the very foundation whose director was busy hyping that research through a book which he co-authored.
Yet MacLachlan’s paper had a significant policy impact.
“I am going to call this a dangerous paper,” says Duke’s McDonnell. “And I call it that way because what happened was that when Congress and their appointed committees at the EPA went back to try and mandate testing protocols, this synergy became a very dominant issue and really it could have altered the way that these compounds were tested for.”
“It had enormous effect. No doubt about it,” says Abelson. “There was legislation put in [i.e., The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996] that is going to cost billions of dollars. There is just no doubt about it that this had a very profound and very bad effect on the regulatory system.”
Myers noted with some satisfaction in a presentation given at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Convention this past February that, “Congress and the Administration have responded with several policy initiatives which I would regard as constructive first steps” including “significant increases in the amount of money available for research, particularly at EPA and NIH.” He also hailed the creation of the Endocrine Disruption Screening and Testing Advisory Committee under the Food Quality Protection Act.
Thanks to the money and the work of the W. Alton Jones Foundation and its director Pete Myers, the regulatory apparatus necessary to embark on another expensive and probably pointless 30-year inquisition against man-made chemicals is now in place. Ironically, the slogan that once adorned the Center for Bioenvironmental Research’s web site read: “The quality of our lives will depend more than ever on the quality of our science.” Sadly this is a message that certain crusading foundations are quite willing to ignore.
Ronald Bailey is an independent writer and television producer. He is the editor of The True State of the Planet (Free Press). His opinion piece challenging claims made by Colborn, Dumanoski, and Myers, appeared in The Washington Post in March 1996.