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McScience: Scientists say USA Today is scary
Trevor Butterworth, November 2, 2009
Updated Nov 16 to correct some broken links
Only five percent of toxicologists surveyed by STATS say that USA Today reports risk accurately. A recent news story on BPA demonstrates why

Recently, USA Today reporter Liz Szabo announced that the National Institutes of Health will devote $30 million to study the safety of bisphenol A (BPA), thanks to money from the stimulus bill. So far, correct. But what about the rest? The following annotates statement made in the original news article with information the reporter either chose not to add or simply didn’t know.

“…[A] growing number of scientists and consumers are concerned about BPA…

The phrase “A growing number of scientists” is a reportorial cliché, rarely supported with data to confirm that there is a growing number or that the growth is meaningful. A growing number can be two plus one. But, of course, a reporter wouldn’t actually frame a trend using language that masked the actual arithmetic, would they? Think again. In 2004 USA Today reported that “meth use by workers and job applicants soared 68% last year” on the basis of a rise from 1.9 meth users per 1000 to 3.2 per 1000.interest in the conclusions.

In the case of BPA, we know that 36 scientists signed a document called the Chapel Hill Consensus expressing their concern about the chemical, but many of these signatories had been expressing concern for years. We also know that USA Today has given prominent coverage to these researchers at the expense of their critics. And on the critical side of the story which says BPA is safe there is a growing number of risk assessments and reviews dismissing the “consensus” concerns as the product of flawed or inadequate methodology and declaring that BPA does not pose a risk at current exposure levels.

Since the European Union’s risk assessment in 2006, there has been a review by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (2007), an examination of claims of neurotoxicity by the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety, (2008), an update to the European Union’s risk assessment  (2008), an evaluation by the French Food Safety Agency (2008), a risk assessment by NSF International, a World Health Organization collaborative center (2008), a review of new data by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (2008), a joint regulatory review for manufacturers by the FDA and Health Canada, a survey by Health Canada (2009), a risk assessment by Food Standards Australia/New Zealand (2009), two more surveys by Health Canada, one on canned powdered infant formula, the second on bottled water products (2009), a hazard assessment by California’s Environmental Protection Agency (2009), and a modeling study of BPA in humans by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (2009).

To reiterate, all of these reviews and assessments found no cause for concern about BPA – and they analyzed the research by the supposedly “growing” band of concerned scientists, subjecting it to statistical and methodological critique.

A survey STATS conducted with George Mason University’s Center for Health and Risk Communication and the Society of Toxicology found that just 9 percent rated BPA as a high risk (by way of comparison, 26 percent rated exposure to sunlight as a high risk).

As for consumers growing concerned about BPA, how could they not be, given the volume of stories telling them they are growing concerned?

 

McStatistics

USA Today wrote the headline on how not to report percentages in 2004 with “Meth presence surges68% in workplace tests.” In a front-page story, the paper claimed that there was “evidence meth is becoming the workplace's latest drug headache…If use continues to rise at this pace meth will pass cocaine this year as the illegal stimulant of choice.”

Buried at the bottom of the story were numbers that driving this picture of a tripped out workforce. The 68 percent “surge” was a product of a rise from 1.9 meth users per 1000 to 3.2 per 1000; in other words, 99.68 percent of job applicants and workers did not test positive for meth use.

Sample sizes (a crucial factor in determining reliable from unreliable BPA research) have also over-stimulated news coverage at USA Today. For example, a 2008 story “Primary care doctors in short supply” warned that “[p]rimary care doctors are an endangered breed of physician,” and that the survey revealing this trend had a margin of error “slightly less than 1 percentage.” That certainly sounded impressive – especially as the paper reported that “virtually every primary care doctor in the USA as well as 50,000 doctors in subspecialties such as cardiology” were surveyed. What the paper failed to point out was that only 4 percent of doctors completed the survey – a response rate so low it defied reliable prognostication about the future of primary care.

Statistical significance has also been a challenge. The paper reported in 2005 that “Diet study reaffirms red meat as a culprit in colon cancer” But the increased risk for men was not statistically significant, and there was no indication of an association between the disease and meat in women.

The paper has also failed to vet stories it runs from other sources, such as the Associated Press. This produced the memorable claim from a coroner that “Rocking your baby to sleep in a mechanical swing can trigger a deadly attack on the child by the family dog…”

The evidence for running the story? Three cases. A check of dog bite data from the Centers for Disease Control for children in the age group likely to be rocked in a swing found four cases – or 15 percent of all fatal dog attacks on children.

"...which has been detected in the urine of more than 90% of Americans — government agencies have been divided about whether it poses a threat.”

Yes, BPA is ingested through food and water, and it’s metabolized in a way that removes its estrogenic capacity before being entirely and expeditiously excreted in urine. But so what? Our urine is full of chemical metabolites. Exposure does not mean danger – nor does using a dash indicate that the scale of the exposure is related to a government division over a threat.

The FDA – as with all the other assessments cited above – does not believe BPA is anywhere close to being a threat, while a brief from the National Toxicology Program said there was “some concern” over some neurotoxicity and developmental endpoints based on a handful of what the director of the National Toxicology Program's Center for the Evaluation of Risk to Human Reproduction the “very limited” studies.

But guess what? The big news last week was that large, multi-generational reproductive toxicity study by the EPA failed to find evidence of neurodevelopmental effects! USA Today did not report this study. In fact, USA Today seems allergic to reporting any of the major studies that have found BPA safe.

According to the NIEHS, animals [sic]studies link BPA with infertility, weight gain, behavioral changes, early onset puberty, prostate and breast cancer and diabetes. New research will focus on low-dose exposures to BPA and effects on behavior, obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, asthma, cardiovascular diseases and various cancers. Researchers will also see if the effects of BPA exposure can be passed from parents to their children.”

What USA Today’s Szabo missed was that the NIEHS has done something else that is, arguably, even more important. It has changed its funding requirements for BPA research because much of the work it had funded in the past was deemed to be methodologically inadequate to determine risk. As the NIEHS notes,

 

Want money for BPA research? Here's the fine print USA Today missed from the NIEHS website...

In order for the data produced to have the greatest impact on our ability to assess the human health effects of BPA, animal studies (developmental exposures or adult chronic exposures) must pay special attention to the following:

  • diet (must not interfere with the sensitivity
    of the model to BPA),
  • species and strain of animals (must be
    sensitive to estrogenic chemicals at
    low doses),
  • sufficient sample size to ensure power to
    detect a statistical difference between
    experimental groups.,
  • internal dose of BPA (total and free BPA
    should be measured in blood and if possible
    also in urine throughout the study),
  • dose responses (single dose experiments
    are not acceptable),
  • phenotype (endpoint must be an actual
    phenotype, disease/dysfunction not
    just toxicity),
  • litter must be used as statistical unit for developmental exposures,
  • route of exposure should be oral or justified
    to provide similar blood levels as oral route,
  • males and females should be used
    when feasible,
  • molecular targets and mechanism should be assessed when possible including gene
    expression, receptor binding and epigenetic
    studies. These effects should be linked to
    the exposure and the disease/
    dysfunction endpoints.

“A significant portion of the literature was not able to be fully considered in the [National Toxicology Program] NTP evaluation due to a variety of experimental limitations including the use of a single dose, small numbers of animals per group, non-oral route of administration, lack of proper statistics and lack of data on specific phenotypic endpoints.”

What Szabo fails to spot is that this is an admission that many of the studies which, as she puts it “link BPA with infertility, weight gain, behavioral changes, early onset puberty, prostate and breast cancer and diabetes” suffered from all these flaws. This is why they were rejected in reviews and risk assessments across the world, and why the NIEHS is now being more careful about how it spends taxpayer money.

Though USA Today has a link to the NIEHS it doesn’t take you to the critical document on the NIEHS site explaining the grants for BPA research but to a generic USA Today page about stories from the NIEHS.

So by either cluelessness or design, USA Today manages to miss the key aspect of this new grant money: it comes with rigorous experimental strings attached to it. This enables the paper to end its article with an over-the-top statement from the Environmental Working Group hailing the very literature that the NIEHS admits is unacceptable for the purposes of risk assessment:

"Activists also applauded the research. But Anila Jacob, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group, says the FDA already has enough information to restrict exposure to BPA, especially in pregnant women and children.

"We can always learn more about BPA, but we have scores of studies showing that low-dose exposure can increase risks," Jacob says."

Only 16 percent of toxicologists familiar with the work of the Environmental Working Group rated its risk assessments as accurate in STATS survey.

McScience is about doing the bare minimum reporting to construct a story and, it seems, never letting facts get in the way of a good McScare.


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