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Former FDA Press Officer Looks Back at 100 E-mail
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Sunday, 04 December 2005
Former FDA Press Officer Looks Back at 100


FDA Consumer

By Carol Rados

Emil Corwin has sampled sea slugs, picked over pigeon eggs, and applied "tiger balm" to his temples after contracting a particularly hardy strain of Asian virus. He's no stranger to spider eggs in bubble gum, rat poison in toothpaste, or earthworms in hamburgers. He's fielded questions on everything from food irradiation and the banning of aerosols to the unsuccessful bid for approval of a sweetener called "dulcin," named for Don Quixote's lady friend, Dulcinea. Corwin has even walked among "barefoot doctors"--all in the interest of public health.

After becoming a public affairs officer at the Food and Drug Administration--at age 70--Corwin traveled extensively, delivered speeches, wrote copy and answered inquiries from a public health perspective. Often the inquiries were off-beat calls related to irradiated food glowing in the dark, the government's decision to ban saccharin (which caused cancer in rats) but not tobacco (which causes cancer in people), and how such vermin as earthworms got into hamburgers in the first place.

With regard to the agency's food irradiation proposal, some 400 callers in only 10 days were assured by employees like Corwin that the proposed radiation would not make their food radioactive. Bard Congress responded to the public outcry about saccharin--fueled in part by media reports that the test rats were fed the equivalent of as many as 800 diet sodas a day--by passing the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act. This law placed a moratorium on any ban of the sweetener while additional safety studies were conducted and required that the sweetener carry a warning label.

As for the earthworms, Corwin says they were one of those "criminals" that in this business often prove elusive, and whose origin would always be hunted.

Corwin kept up his hectic pace until 1999, when he retired at age 96. "I felt reasonably prepared to deal with such questions from the public," he says. Judging by his age when he was hired, the FDA agreed. Corwin attempted to retire--and was talked out of it--a couple of times during his FDA career. His sons, he says, "retired before I did!"

After turning 100 years "young" in April, Corwin reminisced with FDA Consumer and compared the work of today's public affairs specialists with the duties of yesterday's public information officers.

"Times have changed," he says. "You didn't have to worry as much about what you said since you knew the subject matter well enough." Corwin fondly remembers the hundreds of agency experts-chemists, nutritionists, microbiologists, and physicists--whom he and other members of the public affairs staff depended on for quick answers and relevant details. "In those days, we had very good access to the people who had all the information," he says.

Nevertheless, Corwin remembers, "I lost sleep many a night over the interviews I gave. I don't remember saying anything I regretted," he adds, "but on those occasions you prayed for a clear head and a sure grasp of facts to communicate with communicators whose audiences numbered in the millions." Misstatements, says Corwin, are not retrievable.

Toward the end of his FDA career, Corwin says he noticed that the role of press officer had changed. Much of tire difference involved process: While press officers still had access to agency experts, much of the information passed on to newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets was coming directly from FDA experts. With the magnitude and volume of complex, scientific issues facing the agency, Corwin remembers that during his last few years at the FDA, "It was a matter of referring such issues to a higher authority."

Prior to working at the FDA, Corwin spent many years as a reporter and editor with the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, the United Press, and the Newspaper Enterprise Association. He later did public relations at NBC for conductor Arturo Toscanini, and then for the United Nations. During the mid-1950s, Corwin served as the American Cancer Society's director of public information. In 1964, he became an information officer for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare's National Clearinghouse for Smoking and Health. When that office relocated to Atlanta in 1974, Corwin was not interested in leaving Maryland and instead, he says, "I walked across the street and applied for a job at the FDA." He got it and at 70, he was still going strong.

In his lengthy stint with the tobacco issue, both at the Clearinghouse and then at the FDA, Corwin was involved in public health campaigns to educate people about the Surgeon General's first report on the risks of cigarettes. "Once the correlation between lung cancer and cigarette smoking was made," Corwin says, "it became front-page news and Washington took this seriously."

Did these campaigns pay off? "I think so," says Corwin. "There's enough evidence to show that change is taking place." One agenda item of the cigarette smoking campaign, he remembers, was "to get after the airlines." While that, too, took many years to catch on, Corwin believes that the efforts of such campaigns had a significant impact on the smoking ban in 1990 on all U.S. flights.

In 1978, when the FDA planned to ban aerosol sprays with fluorocarbons, Corwin says press officers were asked "how propellants in hair sprays, deodorants, shaving cream and perfumes could seep out of the bathroom, travel 10 to 40 miles up into the stratosphere and destroy the ozone layer that protects people from ultraviolet radiation." Science, Corwin told people, "shows this does happen." The FDA, Environmental Protection Agency, and Consumer Product Safety Commission worked together to phase out non-essential uses of fluorocarbons in 1978.

The aerosol problem faced by the FDA in Corwin's day dramatizes the range of the agency concerns even today-from hazards in the sky to harmful substances so tiny they are measured in parts per trillion. (Just for the record, Corwin says, "One part per billion is like one person in all of China; one part per trillion would be equal to a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.")

Corwin also remembers, albeit not so fondly, angry outbursts and a write-in assault on the agency over an FDA proposal to revise regulations on the safety and labeling of vitamins and minerals decades ago. The proposal was called "idiotic, tyrannical and socialistic" by opponents. People wanted the federal government to let the consumer make his or her own choice. What's interesting, Corwin notes, is that none of the thousands of protests about the regulations had practical suggestions for improving the proposal. One even read: “Please thump the Commissioner on the head; we suspect there is an empty space there.”

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