Apr 1 2009

Unsafe as Milk

How journalism failed to protect babies against BPA

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/sunsurfr

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/sunsurfr

When researchers identified the common plastic additive Bisphenol-A (BPA) as being potentially harmful, CBS ran a segment on the morning news. The anchor introduced the story, “A new study finds that a chemical found in plastic baby bottles and other plastic containers and wraps could be dangerous to your health.” This may seem like an unsurprising opener, given the relatively heavy coverage BPA received in the past year. What’s remarkable about this story, though, is that it aired on May 12, 1999.

Almost a decade ago, both CBS and ABC reported on a Consumers Union study (5/99) that found the estrogen-like synthetic hormone was leaching from baby bottles into formula and milk, with unknown biological consequences. The guest on CBS This Morning warned (5/12/99):

There is a very large and growing body of science from all over the world that shows that very, very tiny amounts of hormone-like substances have a significant impact on development in animal studies. . . And we need a great deal more research before we’re exposing millions of children to this.

An interviewee on ABC’s 20/20 concurred (4/19/99): “Children are being exposed to a chemical day in and day out, and we don’t know if it’s harmful.”

BPA was already being linked to serious developmental illnesses, particularly for fetuses and infants (e.g., Santa Fe New Mexican, 12/6/96; Reuters, 3/3/97; UPI, 5/12/99; Plastics News, 4/26/99). Its near-ubiquitous presence in hard clear plastics and the epoxy linings of food cans, as well as its widespread use in everything from sippy cups to dental sealants means that the majority of Americans are exposed daily.

Despite these troubling facts, the country’s top 10 circulation papers had collectively published less than 40 pieces about BPA prior to 2007; more than a third of these were printed on the pages of the L.A. Times (e.g., 4/1/03, 4/13/05, 6/1/06). Most of the articles were prompted by independent academic research and the ensuing public concern, then abruptly dropped.

What happened? These news organizations accepted the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) official line. The agency assured reporters that current levels of BPA were benign, an opinion it reached based on industry-funded science (Inter Press Service, 5/12/99). “Based on all the evidence available at this time, the FDA sees no reason to change its long-held position that current uses of BPA are safe,” declared CNN anchor Kyra Phillips (8/24/06). But while the press continued to lend credence to an agency not known for its candor (Nation, 5/19/08), expert opinions were shifting.

Hundreds of independent studies had connected BPA to illnesses, including damage to organs and glands, cancers, diabetes, obesity and adverse effects on the still-developing brains and behavior of infants (e.g., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 3/4/97; Nature, 10/21/99; Environmental Health Perspectives, 7/01). Yet that connection failed to make headlines until critical government reports surfaced. Namely, a National Institute of Health and Environmental Protection Agency panel (8/07) deemed BPA a chemical of “high concern,” while expert advisers for the National Toxicology Program’s reproductive health unit (11/26/07) concluded current levels of BPA were of “some concern” for fetuses, infants and children.

The media began to respond, tepidly. CNN blitzed the story for a handful of days in the summer and fall of 2007, while ABC and NPR aired a few segments each. (PBS and CBS broadcast one apiece.) The L.A. Times granted BPA the most prominent coverage, with 11 articles published in 2007 alone. The story also made a brief appearance in the A-section of the Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal; USA Today—along with the Chicago Tribune—mainly covered the story of government capitulations about the safety of a synthetic hormone found in the bodies of 93 percent of Americans in their features sections instead.

In 2008, those critical government reports, an overwhelming amount of independent research, non-profit activism and international concern finally conspired to push BPA into the media spotlight. A scathing report commissioned by the FDA’s own Science Board (CNN.com, 10/31/08) accused the agency of cherry-picking data, concluding it “creates a false sense of security” and “overlooks a wide range of potentially serious findings.”

The year saw major newspapers publish well over 500 stories about the chemical, and it made major television and radio news more than 50 times. The impetus for this sweep of reporting, though, came from the governing ranks. The news media sat on the BPA story for almost a decade, then parroted dissent only when it came from the top.

The mainstream press has an inglorious history of muddying science that conflicts with corporate interests; think of the coverage given to climate change deniers or big tobacco. The story of BPA is no different.