How America became obsessed with BPA
The Oakes Award in Environmental Reporting
Given that the Journal Sentinel’s reporting on BPA simply left out the scientific research that disagreed with its thesis, wrongly dismissed the relevance of key methodological approaches in statistics and toxicology, and never gave critics of vom Saal and the Chapel Hill Consensus a fair hearing, it is hardly surprising that prize juries composed of journalists failed to spot these faults; they would have to be familiar with the National Toxicology Program and EFSA reports at the very least – reading encompassing hundreds of pages of technical material and statistical arguments.
But there are other reasons why, for instance, Columbia’s decision to give the John B. Oakes Award in Environmental Reporting to the Journal Sentinel raises concerns about its jury’s ability to consider the other side of the story.
Jury member Douglas Barasch is editor in chief of On Earth magazine, the quarterly publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The NRDC petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban BPA in October 2008 and previously campaigned against the chemical. The Journal Sentinel cites the NRDC on April 16:
“‘This is the first federal agency to raise significant concerns about Bisphenol A, and it affirms our view that it is potentially harmful to fetuses and children,’ said Sarah Janssen, science fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council. ‘This goes beyond what the committee originally identified as problems.’”
Additionally On Earth magazine ran a story in 2006 called “Bad Chemistry,” which exclusively sources scientific concerns about BPA to Frederick vom Saal’s ‘paradigm changing’ research and that of Patricia Hunt – essentially, the same sources driving the Journal Sentinel investigation. On Earth makes no attempt to address the methodological and statistical reasons that both scientists’ research has not played pivotal roles in risk assessment anywhere in the world, merely reiterating the industry-funded nature of the criticism.
Jury member Jonathan Z. Larsen is also an editorial board member of On Earth and a trustee of the NRDC.
Jury member Dorothy Brown is a special projects editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper ran several pieces on the risks from BPA, the most recent, a feature in paper’s magazine in April 26 2008 – “Plastic peril?; An Ursinus College researcher is convinced that a compound in products from baby bottles to helmets is a hazard to health. And others agree.” The paper also reported on Patricia Hunt’s research in 2003, citing vom Saal as to its significance. In both cases, the reader is left with the overwhelming impression that BPA is dangerous. Any dissent to this perspective within the stories is largely sourced to chemical industry representatives.
Jury member Steve Curwood is the executive producer and host of National Public Radio's Living On Earth. The show has had several pieces on BPA. “War of the Sciences” in 2008 features vom Saal saying BPA:
“causes breast cancer, prostate cancer, low sperm count in males. If you take every major human health trend, Bisphenol A causes that in animals.”
The segment largely consists of vom Saal challenging the FDA’s decision not to ban BPA, a position which is explained by the agency’s Laura Tarantino.
The program also devoted a show to BPA in 2007, with its primary source being Ana Soto, a researcher at Tufts University School of medicine who collaborated with vom Saal on a 1993 paper launching the endocrine disruptor hypothesis. Soto is a signatory on the Chapel Hill Consensus and is cited by the Journal Sentinel in support of the thesis that BPA is risky. The segment also had a quote from Robert Chapin, chair of the expert panel convened by the National Toxicology Program to review the evidence on BPA. Chapin said he found little reason for concern based on his panel’s evaluation of the evidence thus far.
The show also interviewed Nira Ben Jonathan, one of the experts the Journal Sentinel used to evaluate its study on BPA migration. Curwood also hosted vom Saal as a guest on the show to explain his thesis on BPA in 1997.
A search of Living On Earth failed to turn up any interviews with researchers who have challenged the BPA is dangerous thesis. In contrast, most of its coverage appears to be driven by the perspective that the chemical is a threat to the public.