How America became obsessed with BPA
How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sourced its reporting
The flip side of ignoring the evidence that BPA is safe is a crusade driven entirely by evidence that BPA is dangerous. Still, one would expect that the Journal Sentinel would have made a strong scientific argument for BPA being dangerous by extensively quoting from that science; and yet, in reviewing the Journal Sentinel’s 40 articles on BPA in 2008, one of the most striking aspects is how few scientists are quoted by the paper and how little actual scientific discussion occurs, despite the volume of coverage.
Indeed, one of the most troubling features of the way the Journal Sentinel sourced claims about the dangers of BPA was that it relied on environmental activists to interpret what the science meant, or why the FDA or other governmental bodies were remiss or negligent, for example:
“Pete Myers, chief scientist of the nonprofit group Environmental Health Sciences, noted the draft's heavy reliance on two industry-funded studies that found the chemical poses no harm. ‘You think the FDA would have learned not to rely so heavily on industry-funded research after the Vioxx episode,’ he said, referring to an FDA gaffe over the prescription arthritis medicine in 2004.” (August 16, 2008)
“ Wiles, president of the Environmental Working Group, also called for an investigation. ‘Dr. Philbert has 5 million reasons to make sure FDA comes down in favor of the chemical industry and against protecting the health of millions of babies…’” (October 15, 2008)
“‘The bottom line is that each of the four major studies cited by the FDA were flawed,’ said J. Peterson Myers, lead author of the critical review and chief scientist of the nonprofit group Environmental Health Sciences. The standard used by the FDA ‘does not guarantee quality, reliability or validity in the scientific process,’ he said.” (October 24, 2008)
“‘There is no justification for waiting when safer products are available now. It's indefensible,’ said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for Environmental Working Group, a health advocacy group that has done extensive testing on baby bottles and infant formula, and has lobbied for the chemical to be removed from those products.” (October 30, 2008)
“‘You cannot tell parents with a straight face that BPA is safe,’ said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the advocacy group, Environmental Working Group.” (December 9, 2008)
“‘BPA is a toxic chemical and should not be present in products that children and adults are exposed to on a daily basis - especially children,’ Jovana Ruzicic, spokeswoman with Environmental Working Group, a health advocacy group, told Journal Sentinel reporters. ‘There is enough evidence out there already to take immediate action.’” (December 16, 2008)
“Mike Schade of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice said the matter is urgent. ‘While the FDA continues to delay action, infants and women of childbearing age are being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of this highly potent chemical,’ he said. ‘The U.S. should be a leader, not a laggard, when it comes to protecting infants and American families.’” (December 16, 2008)
The Journal Sentinel relied on several activist groups as expert sources even though none of them had conducted any peer-reviewed scientific research on BPA. Rather, these groups appeared to rely on vom Saal and the scientists represented by the Chapel Hill Consensus for their scientific data. And those are the scientists the Journal Sentinel then turns to elaborate on the science. In other words, what appears as extensive sourcing turns out to be more an echo chamber for the same claims.
Some of the controversies over vom Saal’s research and his position on BPA have already been noted. But his activism against BPA has come in for sharp criticism from Dr. Bill Durodié, Senior Fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In 2005, Durodié was a Research Fellow in the International Policy Institute at King’s College London and had been investigating risk issues and chemicals. He noted that vom Saal was scheduled to speak at an event in London hosted by a by a baby bottle manufacturer going by the name of B Free (standing for BPA free baby bottles).
Vom Saal told STATS by email that he “received no payment for my talk in London in 2005 - I paid my airfare to go there and hotel cost to stay there. Any suggestion that this is not true would be libel and would lead to legal action. This has been raised periodically by people associated with the chemical industry and is a pathetic and desperate attempt to discredit me because those pulling the strings and their puppets are unable to provide credible scientific arguments regarding the hazards posed by BPA that I discussed in London and have discussed elsewhere.”
But Durodié says that it was the tenor of the talk that troubled him. “It was quite hard for anyone outside of the world of nursery magazines and the like to access the meeting,” he said by email, but once inside he challenged vom Saal’s presentation of the evidence, and was ejected from the lecture by the manufacturer. Explains Durodié,
“I felt vom Saal’s presentation in London had every hall-mark of old-fashioned quackery. That is just my opinion after all. My reading of the literature indicated he was viewed by others in the field with a degree of circumspection to say the least. Gail Charnley, the then President of the Society for Risk Analysis, whilst not describing him specifically, suggested in an editorial that the whole field of endocrine disruption was a conclusion in search of data. Finally, the very fact that the detractors have to, again and again, refer to the work of a single investigator, or a limited number of his past collaborators, the results of whom others are unable to replicate, should alert them to a problem. In science at least, data does have to be independently verified.”
This independent verification of data becomes one of the key issues in what is the Journal Sentinel’s most ambitious venture in its examination of BPA – the decision to conduct its own scientific tests.