STATS ARTICLES 2005
Media Sticks Poisonous Popcorn Bags to Teflon Chemical
November 28, 2005
Activist group plays media with whistleblowing claims. Is PFOA the new Alar - or is this the worst-reported science story of the year? Errors force ABC to change story, but rest of media fall for imaginary federal safety standard, health risks
Here’s how ridiculously easy it has become to spin the press. Two weeks ago, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has a long history of scare-mongering and releasing statistically-invalid studies, unveiled Glenn Evers, a “whistleblower” who once worked for DuPont as a chemical engineer, and who claimed the company was derelict in addressing the risk from papers coated with chemicals related to Teflon.
Here’s how ABC’s Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross originally reported the story’s lede for Good Morning America:
"To prevent grease stains on fast food and pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, candy bar wrappers and hundreds of other food items, the paper is coated with a chemical that’s part of the Teflon family.
Now ABC News has learned that the Food and Drug Administration has opened an investigation into its safety, based on new information and the testimony of a DuPont Whistleblower."
The reason for the new investigation, according to Ross, lies in a 1987 memo obtained by the Environmental Working Group, which apparently shows that the flurotelomer Zonyl RP was migrating from the food wrapping "at three times what the FDA allowed." (Or as the EWG claimed in their press release, Zonyl RP could contaminate food at over three times the federal safety standard).
As Evers noted, DuPont “never notified the FDA. They never said to the FDA, 'We're stopping our production of this product until we figure out what the problem is.”
But this is roughly like ESPN reporting that LeBron James is tripling the NBA record for jump shots from the left edge of the free throw line - such a record doesn’t exist.
And if reporters had checked with the FDA, they would have discovered that there never has been a federal safety standard for extractables from paper.
Which is why there was no reason for Dupont to notify the FDA after apparently finding these results, and which is why there is no new FDA investigation into the safety of flurotelomer coatings based on Evers’s or the EWG’s claims.
ABC’s Ross told STATS that he called the FDA before the Good Morning America broadcast and said they never told him about the absence of a standard or limit for extractables (and therefore that Dupont was not in violation of FDA rules).
But Ross dropped the claim that Dupont had broken FDA regulations and that the regulatory agency was conducting a new investigation into the company based on Evers’ allegations for the second version of the story, which was broadcast on World News Tonight. The revised report said:
“An FDA spokesman says the FDA has not changed its position that food packaging containing the chemical is safe for consumer use, but confirms that it is investigating the chemical's safety.”
When asked by STATS for a comment on the changes, Ross said only that there was “a stronger and a weaker” version of the story.
At least Ross made the change: USA Today made the same claims about federal standards but has not issued a correction. Nor has the Washington Post, Miami Herald, CBS News or FOX News. Bloomberg News was the only new source to report a comment from the FDA denying the existence of any standard or limit that had been violated by Zonyl RP.
Bait and switch
To add insult to injury, the media didn’t explain what the real FDA investigation has, so far, found in its study of flurotelomer and fluropolymer migration, which is that there is no reason to be concerned about migration from food packaging or cookware.
Even though the regulatory agency made these findings public, through a letter to DuPont that was then released to the media (and to STATS), the coverage remained focused on a non-existent risk from a chemical that isn’t in widespread use. Here’s Evers from the later version of the ABC story: "You don't see it, you don't feel it," Evers said.
"You can't taste it. But when you open that bag, and you start dipping your French fries in there, you are extracting fluorchemical and you're eating it."
The chemicals go into your body, which is "a very bad thing,"
While the first broadcast never mentioned what the chemical was, Ross elaborated in the later version:
“Once in the body, the chemical — zonyl — can break down into a chemical called PFOA. PFOA stays in the blood, a fact that was unknown when zonyl was first approved for use."
The suggestion is that you dip your fry into the bag, the flurotelomer comes off and then changes into PFOA inside your body. In other words, exposure to one equals exposure to the other.
Of course, there will be a certain amount of migration from any treated paper that comes into contact with a hot, oily food substance. But the amounts will be so miniscule that they don’t pose a credible health risk.
Furthermore, Zonyl RP is not widely used, being largely confined to pet food packaging, where it is usually applied to the outside of the wrapping. So it’s hard not to see Ever’s example as being fundamentally misleading.
But it provided the basis for a classic tactic used by organizations to generate media attention: bait and switch. Zonyl RP migrated at higher levels than expected therefore all flurotelomer coatings pose a risk of similar migration. And if Zonyl RP can transmute into PFOA inside your body, therefore all flurotelomers transmute into PFOA inside your body.
Guess what? None of this is borne out by research. As the FDA noted in their letter, the migration that has been measured from telomer-coated papers is in the form of telomer-compounds:
“…it should be noted that this flurotelomer migration from coated paper, as reported in this article [Begley, T., et al Food Additives and Contaminants 22 (10) 2005] occurs in the form of telomer-based compounds themselves and should not be equated with PFOA exposure.”
In fact, the only evidence for the kind of transmutation described in the media coverage is a study that found that one percent of a precursor chemical to the flurotelomer coating – flurotelomer alcohol – was metabolized into PFOA in rats.
But here’s the rub: what makes the flurotelomer coating so stain resistant – the carbon-fluorine bonds – is precisely what makes flurotelomers difficult to break down into monomors like flurotelomer alcohol in the body, where they could then metabolize into PFOA. And there is no evidence, as yet, that this happens or even might happen in humans. Even if it did, the evidence points to flurotelomer alcohol having a very low metabolic rate in humans – meaning that most of it would be quickly excreted from the body anyway.
So, given that the Environmental Working Group and Evers are focused on the risk from PFOA, journalists should have asked for evidence that PFOA can migrate directly from coated paper.
And again, the FDA has looked at this very issue – and their preliminary findings, as noted in the FDA letter, are that PFOA migration from microwave popcorn bags is “below the level of quantitation using current analytical methods,” which is to say, lower than one part per billion.
This is why the FDA, while still investigating “potential cumulative exposure from all food contact materials,” stated that, “we have no reason to change our position that the use of perflurocarbon resin and telomer-based coatings are safe for use in contact with food as described in applicable regulations or notifications.”
STATS confirmed this position with Dr. Paul Honigfort and Dr. George Pauli of the FDA. They also said that it was their subjective judgment that food contact counted for only a small part of human exposure to PFOA, and that the FDA investigation is to confirm whether that judgement was true.
When STATS asked Ross whether he was aware of the FDA research on flurotelomer and PFOA migration, he said he wasn’t. But he said he was very interested in hearing about anything that confirmed the safety of such products.
STATS later determined that Ross had been sent a copy of the FDA letter by e-mail two days before his stories aired, but repeated requests to find out whether he had received the letter or read it elicited no response.
Ross did, however, provide a key to understanding why ABC – and pretty much every other news organization – failed to spot the problems in Evers and the EWG’s claims.
“I’m not a science reporter,” he told STATS.
Then why is this story, a story whose truth or falsity depends on understanding the science, being covered by someone who isn’t a science reporter?
Blind to science
To put it bluntly, this is why so many health scare stories that hit the news are inaccurate. Activist groups understand that because these stories are treated as “breaking news” they are rarely given to dedicated science and medical beat reporters. Instead, there is a rush to get the news on air and into print as soon as possible after a news event like the EWG’s press conference.
This practically guarantees that none of these stories is reported in a way that tries to evaluate their truth by looking at the science.
The measure of whether the story is acceptable for broadcast or publication is balance – did the reporter get a company spokesman to give a comment? If so, the story is good to go.
And when it comes to allegations that involve “whistleblowing,” corporate cover-ups and dangerous chemicals, the advantage is always with the group or individual making the claim. The companies facing the allegations are usually blind-sided by the news themselves or incapable of rapidly communicating the science in a sound-bitey, media-digestible manner.
At the same time, the journalistic tropism of taking the little guy’s side against corporate behemoths has been with us since the days of the yellow press: reporters are instinctively suspicious of big PR-mediated business, while the language of malfeasance and corruption is far easier to digest than the nuances and numbers of toxicology.
Yet the only way to measure the truth of these stories is to look at the actual risk, which is why it is worth looking at where the state of research is on PFOA. After all, these are the facts the public is unlikely to find reported anywhere else.
Is PFOA the new Alar?
Here, again, are Evers and Ross talking about PFOA in the ABC broadcast:
"It bioaccumulates, which means the chemical goes into the blood and it stays there for a very long period of time," [Evers] said.
A recent government study found that the chemical is now in the blood of 96 percent of all Americans.
But Evers says the company refused to listen to his pleas they discontinue the chemical's use on food wrapping.
DuPont thinks that they have pollution rights to the blood of every American, every man, woman and child in the United States," Evers said.
“Studies have linked PFOA to cancer, organ damage and other health effects in tests on laboratory animals. The Environmental Protection Agency currently is considering its safety in humans.”
According to a study in the Feb 2005 issue of the peer-reviewed Environmental Health Perspectives, annual flurotelomer production has significantly increased between 1990 and 2000, yet the levels of PFOA in German blood samples have decreased (from approximately 12ppb to 6ppb) and stayed roughly the same in U.S. blood (roughly 5ppb).
The study also showed similar correlations between PFOA in the blood and fluropolymer manufacturing, the production output of which has also sharply increased over the same time period.
This means a number of things
The first, and most important, is that PFOA at five or six parts per billion in human blood is not a health risk. There is no test or study that has shown any connection between this kind of low-level exposure and any statistically-valid health effects. Tests of Dupont workers with much higher PFOA levels have found no evidence of any health problems associated with exposure to PFOA.
The second is that the levels of PFOA in human blood are pretty much the same whether you live in Sri Lanka or Detroit. If Ever’s and the Environmental Working Group’s comments on bioaccumulation were true, you would expect there to be greater PFOA levels based on the proximity to and consumption of fast food; and there isn’t.
That leaves us with exposure from manufacturing, which is the principle environmental conduit for PFOA. So, we would expect levels of PFOA in human blood to show an increase relative to the significant increases in manufacturing output. Again, there isn’t – and in fact, there is evidence of a decline. And it is important to note that there have been dramatic PFOA emission reductions over the past ten years.
Virtually all of the PFOA in human blood is bound to albumin in blood plasma, which means it is not biologically available to do any damage. In fact, PFOA, being so stable, is less reactive than many naturally-occurring fatty acids.
What about the rats?
The charge that PFOA is a carcinogen needs to be understood in the following context: Any substance that can be shown to cause cancer in an animal in a laboratory setting is, classified as a “suggestive” carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. And any substance that causes cancer in two animal species or both sexes of the same animal or more than one type of cancer in one species (provided the mode of action that caused the cancer is applicable to humans) is classified as a “likely” carcinogen. But neither the designation “likely” or “suggestive” means that the substance is likely to cause cancer in humans – or that it is even a human carcinogen.
Ten percent of rats dosed with PFOA levels at 125 parts per million developed a type of tumor in the liver produced by peroxisome proliferation.
This exposure level is 25,000 times higher than the level of PFOA currently found in humans – five parts per billion. Also, it is far from clear that the mechanism by which the rats developed tumors applies to humans.
In a presentation at a conference in August, Dr. Jennifer Seed of the EPA’s Risk Assessment Division Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics noted in her overview of the EPA’s assessment of PFOA that, “The overall weight of evidence suggests that the MOA [mode of action] for liver tumors is unlikely to occur in humans, taking kinetics and dynamic factors into account.”
Thus the EPA saw only “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity.” Seed also noted that “Studies have not shown any effects directly associated with PFOA exposure." This contradicts the EWG claim, widely quoted in the media, that PFOA has been linked to human birth defects.
Seed’s comments came after the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board had reviewed a draft risk assessment of PFOA. (The final report has not yet been published.)
The bottom line is that human exposure to PFOA is so low and margins of safety in regulatory levels so high, that it is difficult to see how exposure to the chemical poses a genuine health risk. The regulatory agencies, and in particular the EPA, are trying to answer the question of where is the PFOA in human blood coming from and whether it might pose any risk. Remember, if these kinds of standards were applied to the food we eat, the oxalic acid in spinach would be considered much more dangerous than PFOA.
What is really alarming about this story is that the EWG has a long history of releasing alarmist studies and making apocalyptic claims that simply do not reflect the state of scientific research. The Environmental Working Group are particularly fond of doing studies (PCBs in farmed salmon, flame retardant in breast milk) whose sample size (10 salmon) is so ludicrously small as to have no statistical validity. And yet, again and again the media cover this group’s claims as if it they reflect serious scientific research.
You would think the media would be clued into the group’s tactics by now. You would think that even if the reporter covering the EWG’s news conference on PFOA had never heard of the group before, they would have done some background research – or held off on the story until they figured out what it meant.
But you would be wrong. And as news organizations cut back on staff, reporting is going to increasingly give way to dictation. Finally, what is staggering about the sheep-like way the media covered this story is the volume of ink and air-time given to the hypothetical health risks of wrapping for fast food.
Think about it.