Dr. Tracey Woodruff is a professor of reproductive medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Despite a prestigious university posting and extensive publication record, Woodruff has made some questionable comments about the risks associated with environmental chemical exposure and lent her credibility to the anti-biotech movement in the process. Activists groups that raise money by scaring parents eagerly advertise Woodruff’s credentials and research in their fear-mongering literature, and recently released emails show that Woodruff works with a PR team known for promoting environmentalist propaganda.
Woodruff Backs Pesticide Scare Stories
In late 2016, the anti-biotech propagandists at U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) claimed that “[r]esidues of many types of insecticides, fungicides and weed killing chemicals have been found in roughly 85 percent of [the U.S. Food Supply].” USRTK went on to argue that consumers, especially children, are exposed to too many pesticides through the food they consume.
The source for the “85 percent” claim is the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) 2015 report, but the agency’s study reads very differently than USRTK’s analysis. According to the executive summary, “…over 99 percent of the [produce] samples tested had residues well below the tolerances established by the EPA with 15 percent having no detectable pesticide residue.” (pg 7) Instead of emphasizing how safe the American food supply is, as USDA did, USRTK flipped the data to report the 85 percent figure, which allowed them to ignore the important fact that Americans are exposed to negligible levels of pesticides in food.
Nonetheless, USRTK pressed on, claiming that cumulative pesticide exposure in food could be a real problem, and for this point they turned to Woodruff. Following big tobacco’s playbook, the UCSF professor tried to foster doubt about USDA’s pesticide safety standards. She told USRTK that “…people are exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time and the current approaches do not scientifically account for that.”
USDA disagrees, however. The agency notes in their study that “[t]he data reported by PDP corroborate that residues found in agricultural products…do not pose risk to consumers’ health…” (pg 26) USDA also anticipated Woodruff’s methodology objection. The agency explained that pesticide use is determined by local pest pressures where food is grown and which crop varieties are planted, key details that “…are captured by PDP data, which reflect actual residues present in food grown in various regions of the U.S. and overseas.” (pg 29)
Monsanto Poisons Babies?
Activists dislike Monsanto for developing transgenic seeds, but the company has also come under fire for allegedly causing infant mortality and morbidity and lying about it. Monsanto, according to charlatans like Joe Mercola, markets “toxic” products that “poison” babies in utero. There is little scientific evidence to support such fanciful claims, so the anti-science zealots have used Woodruff’s questionable work to justify their doomsaying.
In one 2011 study, Woodruff found that most mothers are exposed to trace amounts of chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) during pregnancy. Despite the fact that she only analyzed a year’s worth (2003-2004) of CDC data on 268 pregnant women, Woodruff worries that simultaneous exposure to these substances could harm developing children.
Experts have criticized Woodruff’s research because she focuses merely on the presence of these chemicals and fails to report the levels of exposure. The dose makes the poison, as chemists have long argued. Moreover, poverty is a bigger risk factor for poor infant health than exposure to low levels of chemicals in utero. Poor pregnant women, according to a 2010 study, often lack access to proper medical care and nutrition. They’re also more likely to smoke and consume alcohol during pregnancy.
Nonetheless, birth defects affect only 3 percent of newborns in America. Infant mortality in the United States has also declined sharply since 1900, a positive trend that has continued in the years following Woodruff’s study, according to the CDC. This is likely the result of economic growth in the western countries, which are able to spend more on health care.
Emails Reveal Woodruff’s Relationship With Industry PR Firm
In November 2017, school teacher and science writer Stephen Neidenbach made an open records request with the University of California to see Woodruff’s emails to and from organic industry front groups, suspecting that Woodruff has a working relationship with these organizations. The University system rejected Neidenbach’s request, citing privacy concerns and a desire to protect academic freedom.
The rejection was suspicious for several reasons. The University of California previously released the emails of researchers who work in biotechnology and agriculture, fields Woodruff has waded into with her questionable comments about pesticide exposure. Moreover, compelling arguments have been put forward for why publicly-funded researchers should be accountable to taxpayers via open records laws. If Americans are going to finance the work of academics in public universities, so the argument goes, then they should be allowed to see what these researchers are saying behind closed doors.
The University of California now agrees, apparently. In December 2017, UCSF released a handful of emails Woodruff exchanged with public relations strategists at Fenton Communications. The PR firm is infamous in the scientific community for helping environmentalists sell their scare stories to the general public, the most notable being the Alar apple scare in 1989. The emails reveal that Fenton helped up drum up “tremendous media coverage” for Woodruff’s questionable study linking chemical exposure to birth defects. Fenton’s client list is a who’s who of anti-science activists, so the firm’s relationship with Woodruff confirms that her work is being used to push an activist agenda with her consent.