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Science Suppressed: How America became obsessed with BPA
Trevor Butterworth, June 15, 2009
An in-depth examination of the science, risk assessment, and media coverage of the most controversial chemical since alar, drawing on interviews with the lead authors of two major risk assessments, and focusing on the accuracy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's award-winning series, "Chemical Fallout," and the newspaper's campaign to have the chemical banned.

bpaA handful of scientists and environmental activist groups claim that bisphenol A is the biological equivalent of global warming, and its presence in plastic bottles and can linings is endangering “millions of babies.” Their message – and their accusation that the Food and Drug Administration has been swayed by industry-sponsored studies and has ignored vital scientific evidence – has led Congress to ask the agency to re-examine the safety of the chemical. A decision is expected by the end of the summer.

Missing in this debate is that it’s not just “industry groups” that think BPA shouldn’t be banned – or just industry-sponsored studies that say it’s safe. Scientists, regulators, and politicians in Europe, Australia, and Japan have all rejected the evidence that the chemical is harmful as methodologically flawed, badly conducted or irrelevant – with some warning that banning it could actually endanger the public. Now that the National Institutes of Health has acknowledged it funded a lot of poorly-designed research on BPA – the very research that activists touted as evidence that the chemical is deadly – it’s time to ask whether America has been spun by clever marketing rather than clever science.

The following investigation is long, approximately 27,000 words. It can be downloaded as one pdf (577k)

 

 

1. Introduction
Why did the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) become the hottest environmental topic in 2008 after global warming?

2. The route of the controversy: Eat or inject?
Studies that injected BPA into the bloodstream of animals produced different results to studies that fed BPA to animals

3. Why was the route of exposure to BPA ignored?
How one controversial source came to dominate all media discussion of BPA.

4. What if BPA were tea?
An analogy puts the debate over BPA and the media's response into perspective.

5. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Chemical Fallout” Crusade
The newspaper devoted over 40 articles to, adding up to over 30,000 words on BPA in 2008 and won four major journalism awards, but did they get the science right?.

6. What the Journal Sentinel didn't report
The newspaper's investigative team had a knack for avoiding research that showed BPA was safe, including risk assessments by the European Union, NSF International, Japan, and a lot more.

7. How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sourced its reporting.
The newspaper relied on a small circle of researchers whose work on BPA has been rejected by risk assessments across the world.

 

8. The newspaper's $4,450 test
Are microwaveable plastic containers safe? STATS asked a real independent expert to review the paper's study after the paper convened a panel of not-entirely "independent" experts to validate and interpret its results.

9. “Their decision was absurd”
BPA and whether babies are like tiny adults or tinier rats. The perspective from an expert in developmental toxicology.

10. New research and a missing piece of the puzzle
A Centers for Disease Control research discovers how premature babies process BPA and disproves a key argument of the anti BPA campaign.

11. Cherry picking and over-interpretation
The study that could be interpreted nine million ways was interpreted in one all-too predictable way.

12. The NTP draft report
Just what exactly did "some concern" mean - and was the National Toxicology Program being too concerned?

13. The Oakes Award in Environmental Reporting
Why journalists judging other journalists might not be a good thing when it comes to science and statistics.

14. Conclusions
A watchdog or a hanging judge? Why we need a precautionary principle in journalism.

1, 2, 3, 4, ... 24

Updates(October 5)

STATS responds to false claims made by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Dorothy Parker Meets The Marlboro Man:
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s BPA Conspiracy Theory

STATS responds to questions from the Journal Sentinel about its funding and organization.

STATS responds to queries from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Errata (June 16)
STATS was contacted by Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Kissinger on June 15 with the complaint that the claim STATS contacted reporters at the paper was false because she has no record of being contacted. This is true with respect to Kissinger; we regret the implication, and the article has been corrected to note this. STATS contacted Kissinger's co-author, reporter Susanne Rust twice by email, and left a phone message once. We also emailed deputy managing editor for projects Mark Katches twice. Katches oversaw the Journal Sentinel Watchdog's report. We chose to contact Rust over Kissinger because the paper made note of Rust's scientific background as being indispensable to conducting its reporting on BPA, and our questions were of a highly technical nature. Neither she nor Katches responded.

Disclaimer
Neither STATS.org nor the author received any payment from any industry or other source
associated with the manufacture, use, or distribution of bisphenol A.


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