"I'm not here converting these men and women to Scientology. And I've got to tell you something-I've been a Scientologist 20 years. In Sacramento I, more than any other Scientologist, got new people into Scientology, me personally. I'm very good at converting people, if I want to." Jim Woodworth is the director of the New York Rescue Workers' Detoxification Project, and he is bristling at the suggestion that his program is an arm of the Church of Scientology. He insists that his group is totally secular, stating that a look at his tax returns and a discussion with any of the close to 800 men and women he has treated will bear that out. His mission at the program, also known as Downtown Medical, is to help sick rescue workers-not to make new Scientologists. "My purpose here is the purpose that I stated, to restore the quality of life to the rescue workers. It's not a religious purpose."
Those rescue workers I spoke with back up Woodworth's statements. No patient who participated in the detoxification program offered by Downtown Medical said they were confronted with Scientology, or its beliefs, at any time. In 2003, Downtown Medical, a clinic promoting a program designed to remove impurities from the body through a regimen of sweat and vitamins, opened for business. The project, which focuses solely on those rescue workers who served at Ground Zero after 9/11, is based on the writings of Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and project leaders publicly acknowledge that Hubbard's book, Clear Body, Clear Mind, acts as the de facto handbook for the program. Though many past supporters of the program such as the City of New York's largest firefighters' union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, backed off once they learned of Downtown Medical's ties to Scientology, others have been more than willing to openly show their support, starting with former Manhattan City Council Member Margarita Lopez.
During her 2005 run for Manhattan borough president, it was revealed that Lopez helped steer $630,000 in city funding to Downtown Medical. Following that, she received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from Scientology associates and the scorn of Mayor Bloomberg. The mayor openly chastised Lopez, who appears in a promotional video touting the program, for her connection to Downtown Medical. Since then, other elected officials have been happy to stand up for the benefits of the detoxification program, despite Bloomberg's continued objections. Council Member Hiram Monserrate of Queens announced his support for the program in April, declaring that he had gone through the detox regimen himself. Monserrate even introduced a bill to declare April 19 "L. Ron Hubbard Day" in advance of a Manhattan fundraiser for the program hosted by Scientologist, actor and Downtown Medical co-founder Tom Cruise, which raised $1.3 million. Another Queens City Council Member, Joseph Addabbo, attended the fundraiser and said the critics of Downtown Medical were out of line. This program helps rescue workers, Addabbo said, and that should be the top priority.
At least one elected official had no idea he was considered a supporter of the program until he was contacted for this story. On the front page of Downtown Medical's website appears a quote from Michael Balboni, a former Republican state senator from Long Island and current deputy secretary for Public Security to Governor Eliot Spitzer, which states that the results of the detoxification program are "the ultimate victory over the effects the terrorists hoped to achieve." A Google search for the quote finds it only on Downtown Medical's website and a search in the much more thorough Lexis-Nexis newspaper archive does not turn up the quote at all. Balboni does not know how it got there and does not even remember saying it, not just as an endorsement of Downtown Medical but in any context. "I have no idea where they got that quote from," said Balboni when asked about it, noting that he met with a few supporters of the program a few years ago to discuss the potential opening of a similar clinic in his district. Balboni said that if participants in the program felt better upon its completion, then that was good for them. That said, he is not a supporter and will ask Downtown Medical to remove his remark from its website. "It's certainly not an endorsement of the program."
Woodworth supplied a number of letters of endorsement, from elected officials and union leaders alike, offering their support for the program. One letter, written in 2004, is from Senator Chuck Schumer, though Schumer's office has indicated that the senator no longer supports the program. But the only endorsement Woodworth or anyone associated with Downtown Medical cares about is the approval of its patients, and those patients I spoke with were adamant that the program cured their ills.
"I came into it very skeptical," said Steve Mona, a retired NYPD lieutenant who worked at Ground Zero from September 11 clear through December 2001. Mona said that he was prepared to leave the program immediately if he was confronted with Scientology or pressured to convert. That never happened. "Twenty-six days later, I was a different person-not just physically but mentally. No bullshit." Mona says that today he sleeps better, he is losing weight and he has an overall better feeling about life in general. And Scientology has nothing to do with it. "The bottom line is, I know about as much about Scientology now as I did when I started the program." And Downtown Medical's Scientology connections don't mean a thing to Mona. "I wouldn't care if these guys are Satan worshippers, as long as part of the deal wasn't worshipping Satan. They made me well."
The toxins and particle matter released into the air on 9/11 have become a major cause for elected officials in New York, most notably Senator Hillary Clinton, who have charged that the Bush administration and the Environmental Protection Agency did not do enough to keep rescue workers safe in the weeks and months following 9/11 and have not done enough since to deal with their health issues stemming from their work at Ground Zero. For officials like Lopez, Monserrate and Addabbo, Downtown Medical is just what rescue workers like Mona need. But the program is not without its detractors.
Since the detoxification program was first launched, the bulk of its criticism has been linked to top supporter and fundraiser actor Tom Cruise, who has exhibited some bizarre behavior since he began to openly preach the benefits of Scientology several years ago. From jumping up and down on Oprah's couch to the constant rumors that he has virtually enslaved his wife, actress Katie Holmes, into the Church of Scientology, every move Cruise has made in recent years has been tied to Scientology and dubbed "wacky" by the media at large. Therefore, Cruise's pet detoxification program must also be wacky.
Hubbard's detoxification program, which Scientologists refer to as the "purification rundown," requires an individual to ingest a vitamin cocktail and cooking oil, run on a treadmill and sweat heavily in a sauna with temperatures ranging from 140 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit for about a month. If Downtown Medical is to be believed, that combination is a miracle cure for many ailments. "Patients have had black paste coming out of their pores in the sauna," states Woodworth on the site. "Their sweat has stained towels purple, blue, orange, yellow and black. They have reported bowel movements that are blue, or green, or that have smelled like smoke-despite the fact that they had not been at a fire scene for months." A picture of a program participant holding a purple stained towel in his hands appears in a slideshow on their website, and program administrators say they have other similar photos available. Shards of glass have leaked from the pores of detox participants, according to the website. And accounts of the program's benefits, written by rescue workers who served at Ground Zero, cover the site.
The casework that would appear to support detoxification as legitimate medicine appears in multiple places-including Clear Body, Clear Mind-on Downtown Medical's website; on the website of Downtown Medical's parent group, the International Academy of Detoxification Specialists; and in a third volume written by Hubbard called "The Purification Rundown Series," published as part of The Technical Bulletins of Dianetics and Scientology, a collection of letters known to Scientologists as Hubbard Communications Office Bulletins, or HCOBs.
Clear Body, Clear Mind is vague. Though the book does offer vitamin recipes and is a suitable overall primer to Hubbard's detoxification program, it is filled with anonymous anecdotal evidence about the apparent positive results of the purification rundown. The foreward to the book is written by Dr. David Root and James Barnes, both members of Downtown Medical's advisory board, and in it they recount a handful of case studies that purport to show the effectiveness of detoxification. They highlight the cases of soldiers returning from the first Iraq war treated for Gulf War Syndrome, Vietnam veterans exposed to the chemical "Agent Orange" and Kazakhstan citizens exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster. Similar statements are made by Hubbard in the HCOBs. All patients show incredible signs of improvement, of course.
When reviewed, the studies that recount this great success do not meet the basic standards for scientific research that a high school student would be forced to follow in freshman biology. Sample sizes are extremely small, and research is conducted by parties with a vested interest in the program's success. The same is true for the research specifically dedicated to the work of Downtown Medical. One study linked to the program's website is authored by seven individuals, four of whom are directly associated with Downtown Medical, either through its advisory board or as an employee. That study indicates improvements in seven men who participated in the purification rundown, but notes that the sample size is too limited to make a real judgment of its effectiveness. As for the bias of the authors, in a written response Root declared that it is perfectly reasonable for anyone interested in a particular area of study to research that area, and that independence is provided through publication in "peer-reviewed" medical journals. Several doctors consulted for this story said that no credible, peer-reviewed medical journal has ever published a truly peer-reviewed study of the purification rundown.
Other studies of larger groups of detox participants rely on subjective symptoms to make the case that the purification rundown works. A July 2004 outcome summary posted on Downtown Medical's website lists improvements in 286 patients, noting that thyroid function had improved and cholesterol levels had dropped in many participants. However, it points to numerous other indicators of program success that would be more difficult to measure-such as improvement in the areas of joint pain, fatigue, impaired memory, irritability and eye irritation. Fatigue can be cured by going to bed earlier, and irritability can simply mean having a stressful day at work. The outcome summary even counts a decrease in alcohol consumption as a benefit of the program, even though that could mean going down from six to five beers a night or just deciding to stop drinking on your own, something alcoholics do everyday with meetings, minus vitamins and a schvitz.
Another study, authored by Root and two others associated with the project and attached to Downtown Medical's 2005 tax return, mentions improvements in other subjective symptoms as a sign of the program's benefit. According to that study, which examined 484 program participants, 100 percent of patients reported improvement in both "subjective symptoms" and "perception of health." It also found that participants in the purification rundown "found considerable reduction in days of work missed on the start of the detoxification program, as well as reduced concerns about forced retirement." It even claims that detoxification has the potential to raise your IQ level by almost four points, a modest number considering the official Church of Scientology website boasts that the purification rundown can raise one's IQ by up to 15 points. A decrease in subjective symptoms is a perfectly legitimate way to measure program success, according to Dr. Phyllis Gelb, a physician with Downtown Medical. "Many program participants-who have not slept for years, who are depressed, fearful, lethargic and unstable-have generally undergone multiple tests and been told there is 'nothing wrong.' Given that the means do not exist to identify a cause of their suffering, there [sic] subjective statements may be the only measure of success," wrote Gelb in a written response.
Two major problems, aside from the bias of the authors and the reliance on subjectivity, exist in each detoxification study, the first being the utter lack of any control group to balance the testing. In that high school science class, one might have put together a project examining the effects of cigarette smoke on the growth of a fern. One fern would face a barrage of nicotine while another would sit far away from the smoke for the same period of time, and growth would be measured at the conclusion. For a more adult example you might look at drug companies, which test the effectiveness of every drug by giving one group of subjects what amounts to a sugar pill. Not a single available study of the purification rundown includes such a control group, and no groups are ever present in the work published by Downtown Medical.
Woodworth admits that he has no control study. He has a study prepared, written and ready to go but he does not have the funding required to move it forward. Root, on the other hand, says there is no need for such a study. He and his researchers know the purification rundown works, and therefore there is no need to force the placebo on anyone. Scientific methods need not be followed. "As regards controls, it is not possible to give one group a sugar pill and ask another group to exercise, sauna and take vitamins without making it obvious that the 'control' group is not receiving the same therapy. It has been most practical to use participants as their own control-i.e., to monitor their condition over a period of time prior to program start," wrote Root.
But time is a major reason a control group would be needed to study the detoxification program's effectiveness, since over time the body will naturally detoxify itself without the help of a vitamin cocktail and a sauna session. Human beings naturally release chemicals from their bodies all the time through an ancient process known as going to the toilet. If you took an antibiotic today, it would naturally work its way out of your body. That's why drugs are usually prescribed for a number of days, in order to keep the levels of that drug high enough to be effective. The same would be true of radiation. If you are exposed to radiation today, the amount of radiation in your body 30 days from now would be lower.
That's not the byproduct of the Hubbard method, that's just the way things work. Proponents of the purification method argue that toxins can stay in the body forever unless you take your vitamin shake and sit in the heat, but such claims cannot be taken seriously without measuring the time such toxins take to leave the body unassisted. Just drinking a lot of water can clean out your system all by itself. It is also worth noting that different chemicals take different amounts of time to leave the body naturally, yet Downtown Medical's research tends to treat toxins as an interchangeable soup. The study attached to the tax return does not even bother to mention before and after levels of toxins whatsoever.
"It's a total myth," said Stephen M. Pittel, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist and a toxicology expert based in California. With more than 30 years of experience in the study of toxicology and substance abuse research, Pittel said he sees no merit in the purification rundown at all. Detoxification takes place naturally, said Pittel, and all doctors can and should do is either treat the symptoms of detoxification through medication or gradually wean individuals away from the toxins. "It takes place all by itself. You don't have to do anything for the body to detoxify itself. There's nothing that does anything to hasten the detoxification process." Pittel noted that the Hubbard method is largely based on the notion that toxins can be stored indefinitely in human fat tissue and that the purification rundown can force those toxins out of the body, a statement Pittel said is false. The only thing that can force toxins out of fat tissue is very strenuous exercise, and even then the reduction would be miniscule, said Pittel. "A sauna's just not going to do it."
Taking niacin in such high amounts can be, to put it lightly, extremely hazardous to one's health, according to Dr. Manoj K. Mittal, a fellow in Emergency Medicine at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In a case study that appeared in April's edition of the Annals of Emergency Medicine, Mittal reported on two adults and two adolescents who suffered serious side effects from taking large amounts of niacin as a vitamin supplement. Both adult patients suffered skin irritation, while both adolescents had potentially fatal reactions to niacin-including liver toxicity and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) as well as nausea, vomiting and dizziness. One of the teens even experienced heart palpitations. All four patients recovered after treatment.
Such side effects are given little mention in Hubbard's writings, and in fact appear to be misrepresented as good things. In Clear Body, Clear Mind, Hubbard writes that the skin irritation, a result of niacin toxicity, is the result of radiation or old sunburns being expelled, or "run out" of the body through the detoxification process. Other symptoms of niacin overdose are written off as the reoccurrences of previous injuries or sicknesses "running out" of the body. Side effects, such as nausea, are blamed on a salt imbalance or a lack of commitment to the program. Gout, another side effect of niacin toxicity, is blamed on drinking rancid cooking oil provided by the program, and those who have the symptoms of gout are advised to "consult a qualified medical practitioner."
The recommended daily dosage of niacin according to Mittal is just about 15 mg, a number significantly lower than that recommended by Hubbard. Mittal, who was not asked to evaluate the purification rundown for this story, began to look into the problem of niacin overdose after examining a patient who ingested niacin hoping to capitalize on the vitamin's ever-growing urban legend appeal as an effective masking agent for an employer's drug test. A Google search for "niacin" and "pass urine drug test" yielded 84,600 results, according to Mittal's research. While programs like Downtown Medical promote niacin as a way to clean the body, the conventional wisdom is that niacin works to only hide those impurities and, according to Mittal, is not even effective at that task.
"Because niacin is known to affect metabolic processes, there is a completely unfounded notion that it can rapidly clear the body of drugs such as cannabis and cocaine. However, not only is niacin ineffective for this purpose, it is also dangerous when taken in large amounts," said Mittal, who came across at least one case where a niacin abuser required a liver transplant after high doses of the vitamin destroyed the organ.
Downtown Medical advisory board member and attorney Robert Amidon, in a written response to questions, said that there have been no adverse side effects in his program from niacin overdose since his vitamin regimen calls for immediate-release rather than sustained-release niacin. The latter has been associated with the more severe consequences of niacin overdose such as liver failure. However, doctors and other research indicate that immediate-release niacin, like that used in the purification rundown, can also be harmful to the liver and that the other side effects are no happy byproducts of detoxification.
"If you give people this much niacin, science has shown that those are the symptoms of niacin toxicity," said Saeed A. Jortani, Ph.D., the director of the forensic toxicology laboratory at the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine of the University of Louisville. Jortani added that the purification rundown is "dangerous," and that no amount of faith could transform those side effects into a positive. He also pointed out that other vitamins used in the program, such as Vitamin A and calcium, can also be toxic when misused over the long haul. "Your body doesn't see religion when it comes to an overdose."
The link between niacin and drug use goes beyond just tricking your employer to think you are clean. In Clear Body, Clear Mind, Hubbard devotes numerous passages to the purification rundown's ability to clean the body of drug-related toxins, and the detoxification plan has been used for decades by Narconon, a drug rehabilitation program with strong ties to Scientology, one that many critics of the Church see as nothing more than a way for Scientology to recruit weakened drug addicts into their faith. "Narconon is Scientology," said David S. Touretzky, a free-speech activist, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and a longtime critic of the Church of Scientology. "Narconon's practices are exactly Scientology practices."
Criticism of Touretzky has even invaded the world of the New York Press. In late April, several items were posted to our blog regarding Downtown Medical and the Cruise fundraiser, including one defense of the program. Touretzky sent us a response which was posted in full. Two days later, the New York Press website was hacked, and an anonymous person placed a pro-Downtown Medical, anti-Touretzky item on the site. After a short time, the item was removed.
After Woodworth found the Touretzky item on the New York Press blog, he accused the newspaper of "doing his bidding" and demanded that we consider criticisms posted about Touretzky at Religious Freedom Watch, a website that is almost universally regarded as a Scientology front group designed to attack the Church's critics. Woodworth specifically pointed to items on the website that note Touretzky hosts bomb-making instructions on his own website and accusing him of being a racist. "If you quote this guy as an expert, I want you to put in exactly who this guy is," said Woodworth.
Bomb-making instructions do appear on Touretzky's website, along with an explanation that he has hosted them as a protest of the arrest and conviction of Sherman Austin, the owner and operator of anarchist website RaisetheFist.com, who was arrested for publishing the information on that site several years ago. Touretzky explains that he now hosts the information to "facilitate public scrutiny of the law under which Austin was charged" and to shine a light on First Amendment issues raised by the case. The professor even points to other resources on bomb-making, available through Amazon.com, Wikipedia or even CNN's website, that have not led to the arrest of their creators as a contrast to the Austin case.
As for the racism charge, the information hosted at Religious Freedom Watch could not be found at any other credible source. A Google search found only reposts of the information, and a Lexis-Nexis search found even less. Therefore, the racism charge was deemed useless and unfounded. "It's the same thing since the beginning of the cult," said Touretzky. "They attack their enemies relentlessly in the hope that people will shut up and go away. But in the age of the Internet, it doesn't work so well."
Between tax filings and Lopez's sizeable grant, Downtown Medical has received more than $900,000 in taxpayer funding since it opened in 2003. These numbers are disgusting, according to Queens City Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., who has been a vocal critic of Scientology and Downtown Medical since April. Vallone has openly called Scientology a cult, and feels that government funding should never be used to fund Downtown Medical. "It's an obscenely rich cult, and it could easily fund the program itself," said Vallone, who added that government funding helps Downtown Medical and Scientology achieve false legitimacy.
The connections between Downtown Medical and Narconon, as well as other organizations with strong ties to the Church of Scientology, are fairly apparent. Three of the organization's advisory board members list their experience with Narconon in their biographies, while other board members list their associations with either the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE) or the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE). Narconon is managed under the watchful eye of ABLE, which Touretzky states was founded to create a buffer between the Church of Scientology and its "public benefit" organizations, which had been run directly by the Church of Scientology in previous years. FASE was outed as a Scientology front group by Robert Vaughn Young, a former Church spokesperson turned anti-Scientology crusader, prior to his death in 2003.
Both FASE and ABLE are paid by Downtown Medical for their support of the purification program. According to Downtown Medical's most recent tax return, GASE received $215,166 from the program from 2004 through 2005 for its help in founding the detox project, as part of an agreement that specifies a payment to FASE based on the overall budget of the program. ABLE has a more direct payment plan with Downtown Medical. According to the tax filing, Downtown Medical pays the Association 5 percent of every contribution it receives "in exchange for certain management, program and funding support."
Amidon disputes the notion that any significant amount of money is paid by Downtown Medical to either ABLE or FASE, writing off the payments as the cost of doing business. "The Project has outsourced work from time to time as a more efficient means of accomplishing its goals. This work has included fundraising campaigns, writing grant proposals, or establishing outcome monitoring guidelines, and other administrative support services. These services were outsourced, at a fraction of what they would otherwise cost," wrote Amidon.
Downtown Medical, though doing business in NYC, is officially registered as the International Academy of Detoxification Specialists, based in Los Angeles. According to information supplied to the non-profit clearinghouse, GuideStar, the group's mission is to conduct and support research into Hubbard's detoxification method "to address the effects of environmental chemical contamination, occupational exposures and drug abuse." Its address is almost identical to that of FASE, which occupies an adjoining suite in the same Wilshire Boulevard office building.
Though its corporation papers were later amended to remove references to the Scientology founder, when FASE was founded in California in 1981 its paperwork explicitly stated that the group's mission was to "promote the works of L. Ron Hubbard."
The Church of Scientology can be hostile when you publish their text. In 1995, the Church sued the Washington Post and two of its reporters after they published excerpts of the Church's "operating thetan" manuals. Despite the potential threat of lawsuits, a direct quote from Clear Body, Clear Mind is probably the best way to sum up exactly why the purification rundown should not be considered medicine. "The Purification program cannot be construed as a recommendation of medical treatment or medication. It is not professed to be physical or medical treatment nor is any such claim made. There are no medical recommendations or claims for the Purification program or for any of the vitamin or mineral regimens described in this book." That quote appears on the book's copyright page. The book that serves as the bible of the Hubbard method, the book that Downtown Medical is basing medical treatments on, admits right upfront that the purification rundown is not medicine, nor should anyone think it is.
Touretzky said he is not surprised that supporters of the purification rundown would try to hold both positions on the medical value of the program. "This is classic Scientology: They try to have everything both ways. And so they fill their writings with 'Scientific' sounding jargon, and then turn around and say, 'They can't touch us for practicing medicine, this is truly spiritual,'" he said.
People who do have medical degrees, people not associated with Downtown Medical, were extremely harsh in their comments. One physician called the purification rundown "at best 'snake oil' quackery." Another said it's likely "a load of nonsense." However, one physician, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he would be willing to accept the program as legitimate medicine if valid research was conducted and the resulting data supported the project. But today that data does not exist, and the purification rundown does not work.