Ignoring Science, 97% of Stories Hype BPA as Health Threat

Susan G. Komen Foundation beaten up by anti-chemical left when it found ‘scant’ evidence of BPA danger.

Fear of chemicals and “toxins” is rampant among the so-called “environmental” left. Unfortunately, that phobia infects national media coverage as well. For more than a decade, the left has been on the attack against BPA, a chemical that is commonly found in plastics and other products.

Anti-chemical groups such as the Breast Cancer Fund and some scientists have crusaded against BPA (known formally as bisphenol A), connecting it to cancer and reproductive problems and claiming that it is “a threat to human health,” despite government agencies that have declared it “harmless” even in baby bottles. Much of the national media have bought in spreading fear of the chemical in ordinary canned goods, on cash register receipts, in dental sealants and more.

In just the past two years, the three broadcast networks and top five national newspapers have continued to report on the “hidden danger” of BPA, labeling it “carcinogenic” and “toxic” often with small or flawed reports from activists. Ninety-seven percent of two years’ worth of newspaper and TV news stories that discussed BPA were about the supposed danger or potential threat of the chemical. This despite an Institute of Medicine study (funded by Komen) and government agencies’ findings about the chemical. Just two of the 87 stories focused on research that found BPA wasn’t the risk the left claims it is.

A popular charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure (which recently angered the left when it rescinded grants to Planned Parenthood), paid the Institute of Medicine to do a study of environmental risks of breast cancer. When the findings did not call BPA a risk factor breast cancer, some on the left were furious. Amy Silverstein cited many critics who say Komen is “in the pocket” of “BPA-happy sponsors” in an Oct. 3, 2011 article for Mother Jones. The Breast Cancer Fund said the study “relies on an antiquated model of weighing the evidence.”

Meanwhile, the media have exaggerated the threat of BPA for years. On the Feb. 25, 2010, CBS “Early Show” broadcast, Katie Lee crossed the line from hype into outright falsehood when she said of BPA: “And that’s been shown to cause liver disease, heart failure, all sorts of things.” If that were true, certainly regulatory agencies like the FDA, WHO and others would have already banned it (they haven’t). Reputable studies done by government agencies have failed to find proof that BPA is dangerous to people. One of those studies: Teeguarden et al., found that even when people consume very high levels of BPA the amount of BPA found in the bloodstream is much lower than levels “causing effects in rodents exposed to BPA.”

Yet, news reports regularly warn people to avoid BPA by “using a glass water bottle or metal,” advising them to “go fresh” or “go frozen” and use glass containers for storage instead of Tupperware. Generally the additional time and monetary expense, or inconvenience of those changes is ignored.

The Business & Media Institute analyzed ABC, CBS and NBC news reports as well as The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal that discussed BPA from Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2011. BMI excluded casual mentions of products that happened to have a BPA-free label, because the stories were not actually about the chemical.

Komen Study Finds no Reason to Avoid BPA, Gets Spun into Attack

In December 2011, a reputable study looking for risks of breast cancer found little reason to avoid BPA. That should have made headlines, but some media outlets still managed to turn the story around and criticize the plastics chemical.

The Los Angeles Times offered one of the two exceptions to scary anti-BPA coverage on Dec. 8, 2011, when the paper reported the findings of a “comprehensive” study conducted by the Institute of Medicine and funded by Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Komen was criticized for its findings by many on the left including anti-chemical group Breast Cancer Fund and the left-wing magazine Mother Jones.

The Times wrote, “As for other chemicals in wide circulation that are the subject of intense scrutiny and activism -- including parabens in cosmetics, growth hormones in livestock, phthalates in plastics and bisphenol A in food and drug packaging -- evidence of danger is too scant to recommend avoidance, the panel said.” (emphasis added)

According to the Institute of Medicine’s press release, evidence that BPA (and a couple other chemicals) was a breast cancer risk factor was either “insufficient or contradictory.”

But other media outlets spun that good news for BPA and nervous consumers into an attack on it and other chemicals. One network doctor even disputed the findings.

The Dec. 8, 2011, New York Times warned “the report may come as a disappointment” for those “hoping for definitive safety information about the huge number of chemicals to which people are exposed” Additionally the Times claimed the “limited advice” was due to a “lack of solid scientific information in many areas of concern.”

NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman actually argued with the findings on “Today” saying, “But bisphenol A. There’s going to be push-back on BPA and pesticides because a lot of people are going to say, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t tell me there’s not a cause because it just hasn’t been studied.”

Actually BPA has been studied extensively, but studies that have found no harm from BPA have often been ignored or distorted by the media. One of these studies was a “huge” and “scientifically rigorous” study called Ryan et al. in 2009. Richard Sharpe, a leading endocrinologist, of the Queen’s Medical Research Institute (UK) wrote in The Toxicological Sciences journal that the Ryan et al. study “throws cold water” on the BPA controversy “by showing complete absence of effect of a range of bisphenol A exposures ...” According to Sharpe, this study found no estrogenic effects of ingested BPA even when the doses were 4,000 times more than maximum human exposures.

Many network and newspaper stories have cited BPA’s estrogenic effects claiming they could be linked to early puberty, behavior problems in young children and reproductive problems in adult men. Because BPA is ingested by humans and metabolized and excreted quickly, that could only happen if active BPA was somehow migrating to the bloodstream.

The 2011 Teeguarden et al. study found little evidence of that. Justin Teeguarden was quoted in Forbes column by Trevor Butterworth saying, “In a nutshell, we can now say for the adult human population exposed to even very high dietary levels, blood concentrations of the bioactive form of BPA through the day are below our ability to detect them, and orders of magnitude lower than those causing effects in rodents exposed to BPA.” The study was funded by the EPA, and according to Butterworth “the analytical work was duplicated by two other government laboratories to ensure extra rigor.”

Butterworth has done extensive investigation of studies on both sides of the BPA controversy for Statistical Assessment Services (STATS), a non-partisan non-profit that seeks to correct scientific misinformation in the news media. STATS has been affiliated with George Mason University since 2004.

Rather than Reporting Those Studies, Media Rely on Activist Claims

Left-wing groups that want BPA regulated (either by consumer fear or the government) grab headlines or airtime almost every time they release another report or “study” about the dangers of BPA. Rather than responding with skepticism or at least pointing out the agendas of those groups, many in the news media simply echo them.

In September 2010, “a new study” claimed that dental sealants could break down into BPA when coming in contact with saliva. USA Today warned that BPA was a “toxic chemical” “linked to a variety of health problems,” and quoted Philip Landrigan of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who co-authored the study.

Further down in the story the newspaper admitted that after three hours, the detected BPA drops off quickly. So why did they even report this in the first place? How is it big, scary news if the BPA is gone within hours?

What USA Today ignored is that Landrigan is an activist scientist who wants the U.S. to adopt the same “precautionary principle” used by some countries, and the opposite of the way the U.S. has regulated in the past (it is also contrary to the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty). If adopted, chemicals would have to be proved safe before being used, rather than proved harmful. He has also claimed chemicals in cosmetics and shampoo may be contributing to obesity (The UK Daily Mail quoted him saying: “The heaviest girls have the highest levels of phthalates in their urine.”)

Even in the rare event of reporters mentioning experts who said “so far there is no proof of a connection” between breast cancer and BPA, the media found a way to attack it. In one story, NBC went to a source who argued the opposite of such experts. Robert Bazell turned to a breast cancer survivor, Marika Holmgren on July 7, 2010. Holmgren said she was convinced her cancer was because of chemicals.

As Bazell put it, “Although every expert will say one case does not prove a connection, Marika Holmgren believes chemicals could have played a role in her cancer.” Holmgren then told viewers, “A lot of the stuff that we’re putting on our bodies, um, on our faces, is -- contains chemicals that increase our risk of breast cancer.”

NBC portrayed Holmgren as an ordinary woman, who had battled cancer and blames chemicals. But that wasn’t the whole story. In fact, Holmgren is a left-wing environmentalist with a lengthy bio. She currently works as a green event planner and writes for the liberal online enclave: Huffington Post.

She has advised or worked for several liberal groups including Friends of the Earth and ForestEthics and Rainforest Action Network. According to her Huffington Post bio, she also participates in a mountain bike team that raises money for the anti-chemical group Breast Cancer Fund, the same pro-regulation anti-chemical group that has been advocating against BPA for years.

NBC wasn’t alone. Broadcast and print stories critical of BPA consulted many left-wing environmental or anti-chemical groups, including employees of Breast Cancer Fund, Silent Spring Institute (named after anti-chemical activist Rachel Carson), Environmental Working Group, Ralph Nader’s U.S. PIRG and National Work Group for Safe Markets.

These groups are to blame for creating a “link” between BPA and diseases, according to Jeff Stier of American Council on Science and Health. He has explained: “Of course BPA is ‘linked’ to obesity and cancer, because these people linked it. There’s no causal relationship, but you can say there is a link between anything you want, just based on animal studies.”

History of Hype

The media have been frightening readers and viewers about BPA for more than 10 years.

In 1998 PBS’s “Frontline” interviewed University of Missouri professor, Frederick vom Saal, who claimed that chemicals could cause more harm in low doses than in large ones. Vom Saal argued that BPA was a “very potent estrogen” and claimed it was acting as an estrogen in people’s bodies. But other scientists’ attempts to replicate vom Saal’s findings were a failure.

More than a decade later, in 2010 and 2011, the media were still at it. Just before Thanksgiving 2011, NBC and ABC frightened consumers about the potential dangers of canned food at their holiday meal. But the “new research” they were citing was simply that BPA in urine samples went up more than 10 fold in 75 volunteers who had eaten canned soup for five days straight.

Since cans often have BPA liners in order to prevent food contamination and poisoning, eating more canned goods would logically result in more ingested BPA. The only thing higher BPA in urine samples proved was that BPA was ingested and excreted. No harm was proven, yet the networks spoke of links between BPA and “deadly disease.”

In 2010, other media outlets worried readers and viewers too. Reuters warned of a “potential carcinogen in my soup,” despite the fact that BPA is not a known human carcinogen. CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen took a left-wing pro-regulatory group’s study so seriously in May 2010 that she impractically advocated that people should “start your own garden,” and then said the people who wrote the study “think that a lot of BPA can make you infertile.”

Robert L. Brent, MD, PhD, D.Sc., and adviser to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) condemned that 2010 study from the National Workgroup on Safe Markets as hype intended to “frighten unsophisticated scientists and the public.”

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to the conclusion that as current human exposure levels, BPA is not toxic -- and specifically is not linked to the myriad diseases outlined in the National Workgroup for Safe Markets report released earlier this week,” Brent concluded.

Back in 2009, MSNBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman bashed BPA saying, “It’s a synthetic estrogen that some scientists believe can be linked to everything from breast cancer to obesity. We associate it with plastic water bottles, but now Consumer Reports says that BPA is even in canned foods.”

Snyderman’s guest, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof hyped the so-called danger of BPA by comparing it to “tobacco in the 1970s.”

In 2008, NBC’s “Today” warned about reproductive dangers of ingesting BPA from reusable plastic water bottles, after they had campaigned against ordinary plastic bottles claiming they were bad for the environment.

The media have been making the anti-BPA case for a very long time and show no signs of stopping, despite no proof that it causes diseases in humans and in spite of studies like the Institute of Medicine’s report, Teeguarden et al. and Ryan et al.