How America became obsessed with BPA
The public good is best served by open scientific debate governed by analytical and statistical rigor. Let’s assume that tomorrow legislators in the U.S. decide to ban BPA from everything because the “possibility” that it might cause harm has alarmed so many people in the U.S. that it is politically unfeasible not to take drastic action. But what if removing BPA on the thinnest scientific grounds actually results in greater harm to the public? What if the protective value it confers in can linings is diminished or its replacement turns out to be measurably more toxic. What if some of the parents who turned to glass bottles for fear of polycarbonate “leaching” BPA drop and break them, causing injury to their babies? How often has this happened and might happen? We know now that even premature babies can process most of their exposure to BPA as adults, but what protection is there from flying glass? These are the kinds of questions – the inadvertent consequences to over-reacting to the perception of risk – that are routinely missing from the media’s coverage of BPA and other chemicals and threats to our health.
It speaks to a philosophical chasm between journalism and science. The real give away – the real unyielding signal of bias at the Journal Sentinel – is not in what the paper failed to report but in the way it reported. One can argue about the motives behind the omission of so much contrary evidence and one can and should question the competence of the reporters at the paper to understand basic toxicology, experimental design and statistical reliability. In all of these areas, the Journal Sentinel failed to show interest, let alone competence. This is an enormous disservice to the public because these are the principles upon which we decide what counts as good science.
But the harshest criticism draws from something much simpler: the paper never raises any serious questions about the science that supports its contention that BPA is a risk. The evidence for BPA being dangerous to humans is always reported in a way that renders it unimpeachable. It is always perfect – completely right – while the opposing evidence is always imperfect and corrupted by scientific flaws or conflicts of interest. The Journal Sentinel, in other words, doth protest too much. Criticism, for the paper’s reporters, goes only one way; they decided from the outset that the position held by Frederick vom Saal and the Chapel Hill Consensus was the right one, and sourced and reported their investigation in a way that subtly and not so subtly excluded anything that might cause readers to think twice about what they were being told.
Few scientific papers end without discussing in what ways their results need to be improved, or treated with caution; and yet the Journal Sentinel never seems interested in even pausing for a moment to test its own position – its cherry picked body of research – against the possibility that it may have limitations or flaws – or may not be consistent or complete. There is no experimental disinterest seeking to test their strongest evidence against the strongest possible arguments that it could be really weak or wrong. There is just the relentless underlying assertion of power: we know the truth.
That this investigation won the paper so many journalism awards has made it practically impossible to backtrack – and the same approach, the same sourcing is now driving the paper’s 2009 coverage of BPA. Why did journalists accord the Journal Sentinel so many laurels? The answer is simple: who among the judging panels read the various risk assessments? How many journalists understand the basics of toxicology, let alone the kind of statistical designs that make one BPA study better than another? How would they have voted if they had been aware of the way the Journal Sentinel skewed the story on BPA to exclude such a vast array of regulatory research finding the chemical safe?
Of course, research finding that a chemical is safe doesn’t make a news story, let alone an investigation that wins awards. Finding that regulators are doing an okay job is not a story. Finding a crisis, a derogation of duty, an industry-driven cover up, that is the stuff of journalism, a story that will win awards. And so the most basic skepticism was abandoned. The obvious journalistic question – if this scientist’s claims are being dismissed across the world, shouldn’t we check him out? – wasn’t asked.
The basic scientific questions that confront anyone looking at the evidence on BPA weren’t asked: If all the large scale rat and mouse multi-generation studies and the NTP lifetime carcinogenesis bioassays in rats and mice turned up nothing on BPA and they administered BPA orally, and 99 percent plus of our exposure to BPA is oral, why would we focus overwhelmingly on the results of injection studies? How is injecting BPA into the brain of a mouse a realistic measure of our exposure risk?
If reporters don’t ask these kinds of questions, they end up writing PR for one side or the other in a controversy. Again, the point is not even about determining the truth – it’s about framing the story in a way in which the truth can be found.
There is also the issue of a powerful double standard that journalists seem incapable of extricating themselves from in stories where charges are leveled against industry: if you are going to raise questions about motives, those questions cannot just be directed at one side in a controversy. In other words, what sort of vested interest did the Chapel Hill Consensus have in keeping the threat of BPA in the news? How much government research money has been spent and is available to spend in investigating the dangers of BPA? Do the tightening of research protocols on BPA at the NIEHS raises questions about the way that organization has been spending government money? Just how much money was wasted on studies that detracted rather than added to our sum of reliable knowledge because of their experimental design? How much money is being wasted on academic studies of dubious value across government?
If a story emerges from BPA, it is that new perspectives are needed in news rooms when it comes to reporting risk and regulation.
The problem is, of course, that industry still labors under the over-arching narrative exposé of the past – Ralph Nader’s invaluable and shocking investigation into car safety, the burying of evidence of the harm from cigarettes, the methyl mercury cover-up at Japan’s Minamata Bay, and the manipulation of research for Monsanto at its contract lab. The suspicion of industry malfeasance is a journalistic reflex encapsulated in the phrase, “follow the money.” But when this suspicion becomes so engrained that journalists start ignoring evidence and statistical rigor and basic science in order to prosecute industry and government regulation, and when they forget to follow the numbers in the data and focus only on the numbers paying for the data, journalism has gone badly wrong.
In this context, the bravado of the Journal Sentinel calling for an end to scientific debate on BPA and a ban on the chemical is remarkable In effect, a small regional newspaper in the U.S. has declared its powers of scientific discernment to be far superior to and more reliable than the regulatory work of the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Australia and New Zealand. What’s even more remarkable is that many people – including legislators – have chosen to believe the paper’s account of BPA over all these expert bodies.
It can only be hoped that the consequences of the Journal Sentinel’s crusade – and similar stories by other news organizations relying exclusively on the same partial sourcing – will not afflict us all in some unforeseen way that only a rigorous, disinterested presentation of the science could have prevented. As the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health FOPH (Bundesamt für Gesundheit BAG) dryly explained in rejecting a ban on BPA:
“A ban on BPA would inevitably cause manufactures of packaging and consumer products (food contact materials) to have to switch to other substances, the toxicity of which is less well known. This would mean a well characterized risk would be replaced with a conspicuously unpredictable risk.”
When journalism’s prosecutorial zeal ignores this kind of precautionary thinking, and legislators take their scientific cues from journalists and not scientists, we are all at risk.