NG Bites the Hand That Feeds It … and the Hand Bites Back

The row between National Geographic and the Environmental Working Group overlooks a more interesting point about author David Duncan's approach to covering "The Pollution Within."

It’s hard to know what to add to the current row between National Geographic and the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization often used as a source by the media. Most of the dirty laundry is already hanging on the EWG blog, and it stinks of a bizarre fight between people who usually share the same corner. What is worse, it detracts from other, more useful considerations of the work in question.

The squabble stems from “The Pollution Within,” an article by David E. Duncan in the October issue of National Geographic. In this “journey of chemical self-discovery,” Duncan subjects himself to a series of highly refined (and expensive) medical tests to screen for 320 potentially toxic chemicals he “might have picked up” in the course of leading a relatively normal American life. It is a warning about the ambient dangers, small and large, of living in an industrial, consumer-driven world. And it is exactly the kind of message the EWG has been pushing for the last two decades.

Now, the EWG is angry it didn’t get credit for help it gave Duncan and his editors during their reporting and fact-checking processes. As the magazine hit newsstands last week, the EWG alleged on its blog that Duncan’s article made “extensive use” of its “intellectual property” without giving proper attribution. Specifically, it complains that Duncan, while reporting, relied on protocols the EWG developed during “Body Burden,” a series of studies the group has led since 2000, which examine levels of toxicity in 72 individuals. The quarrelsome headline of the September 26 post asks, “Do National Geographic and freelancer David Duncan have an integrity problem?”

That was the beginning of the plaint that spills out for thousands of words on the EWG blog, but it was not the beginning of the drama. Before Duncan’s story was published, EWG officials read a complete digital copy on the author’s Web site, according to Tim Appenzeller, National Geographic’s science editor. Members of the EWG wasted no time in calling Duncan to express their dismay, and the author quickly passed on their complaints to Appenzeller and Dennis Dimick, the magazine’s environment editor. In an attempt to redress the problem, Appenzeller and Dimick sent a letter to the EWG on September 19, acknowledging the group’s assistance and admitting the magazine was “remiss in not mentioning your organization in print.”

No harm no foul, right? Wrong. A couple of days later, Appenzeller and Dimick received a short note from the EWG saying it would soon respond to their letter. For nearly a week, they heard nothing more, until the EWG accused Duncan and National Geographic of violating journalistic ethics on its blog. When the blog entry appeared, it included a copy of the September 19 letter from Appenzeller and Dimick.

Apparently, the editors’ apology wasn’t good enough, and if nothing else, the pugnacious tone of the blog was enough to ruffle Duncan’s feathers. The author posted a comment on the Web site the next morning, shaming the group for using “vim and vitriol better left to true enemies and evil doers.” But like his editors before him, Duncan also expressed regret for excluding the group in print, and he acknowledged the assistance it furnished.

Still, for nearly a week, Duncan and the group continued to snipe at each other on the blog (with some third party involvement), but the argument devolved into repetitious attacks that show no sign of resolution.

Duncan should have given a passing mention to the EWG, at least for transparency’s sake. An early draft did contain a quote from the EWG, which Appenzeller clipped “because it didn’t advance the story … and their material was not unique.” But the magazine has already admitted its mistakes, and there really is no lapse of integrity given Duncan’s and his editors’ acknowledgment of the EWG’s complaints. According to Appenzeller, the online version of “The Pollution Within” will include a sentence highlighting the EWG’s contributions in the field of bio-monitoring. And Duncan, in one of his two comments on the EWG blog, wrote that he would post an apology on his own Web site: “But I won’t post anything as long as my photograph is up on your site, and I am depicted as some sort of arch-villain of the press taking advantage of the unwitting sources.”

The photo Duncan refers to once sat next to National Geographic’s iconic yellow borders and a large question mark at the top of the EWG blog. It is gone now, sort of. In its place is a silhouette reading, “David Duncan — photo removed at request of author.” And that’s about as much as the EWG has been willing to concede. If the group once had a valid point to make, it has been overshadowed by its infantile pursuit of reparations.

At any rate, this brouhaha overlooks a more interesting point about Duncan’s approach to the worrisome topic of ambient pollution. Many science writers take consumer-oriented angles to their stories, but tales of toxic chemicals in clothing, bedding, toys, hygiene products, cleaning supplies and just about every other thing that comes off a shelf are nothing new. It is important to be critical of potentially dangerous gadgets, but with every new article, readers must ask what is new in the reporting, especially given that establishing a link between health problems and people’s exposure to harmful toxins is very difficult.

On the whole, Duncan’s National Geographic article, with all its charts and infographics, is a persuasive aggregation of information about bodily pollution and bio-monitoring. But what sets Duncan’s report apart from the typical consumer-oriented science piece is the author’s willingness to guinea pig his own body. The extent to which that exercise illuminates anything for the reader is debatable, however, given that the $15,000 it cost National Geographic is well beyond the means of most Americans. And, more importantly, the results of Duncan’s “chemical report card” are, like all writings on this subject, inconclusive.

With banned or restricted chemicals present in his blood, Duncan writes an interesting account of the toxins’ origins, tracing them to sources of exposure throughout his life:

In the nearby farmland, trucks and crop dusters sprayed DDT and other pesticides in great, puffy clouds that we kids sometimes rode our bikes through, holding our breath and feeling very brave.

Recollections such as this one are fascinating windows into a world that was once much less attentive to its use of chemicals. In a thorough explanation of exposure dangers, Duncan also recounts tales of toxic troubles from California to New England. But all this sounds like we’ve heard it before, and he has much less to say about his current state of health. The most worrisome result of his tests concerned high levels of flame retardants (PBDEs) in his blood. They are found in a vast array of consumer products, but the most concrete conclusion Duncan draws after being told he is, by most standards, healthy, is this: “I’ll never feel quite the same about the chemicals that make life better in so many ways.”

Thus the whole thing comes off seeming a bit gimmicky. I say this not to add insult to injury, but because I, too, have used this very gimmick. As a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism last year, I turned in an article very similar to “The Pollution Within.” Ironically, it was based on the EWG’s release of “Skin Deep,” a massive online database that catalogues toxic substances in a mind-boggling number of consumer hygiene products. I cleared out my medicine cabinet and looked up some 20 creams, gels and lotions one by one. My scheme, though far less costly than Duncan’s, produced the same result. I threw away some Neutrogena after-shave, but could do little more than recount the public information on toxicity already out there. My editor agreed that it seemed contrived — his comments on my draft amounted to “So what?” So what, indeed. Maybe I’m just bitter that I’ve now been scooped, ex-post facto, by another, very capable journalist.

Clarification: The above post has been changed to show that the name of National Geographic’s environment editor is Dennis Dimick, not David.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.