On a couple of occasions (here, here) we’ve taken note of the scientific controversy regarding the plasticizer, bisphenol-A (BPA). I shouldn’t really put it this way, because as the leading BPA researcher, Fred vom Saal of the Univeristy of Missouri said in the Washington Post over the weekend, there is no meaningful controversy any longer. Now that NIH’s National Toxicology Program has finally presented its draft report on BPA expressing concern over possible carcinogenic and developmental effects, vom Saal’s statement seems pertinent:
“The scientific community basically said, ‘This argument is over,’ ” he said. “It ended a long time ago. There’s only been an illusion of a controversy created by a well-financed public relations outfit. The idea that the FDA tells people this is safe is offensive.” (Washington Post)
Whether there remains a controversy in some people’s minds (e.g., some people in the Bush administration, including its FDA puppets), for the rest of the world the train has left the station. I reported here many months ago how my daughter, who is no scientist but knows how to use the internet, stopped using plastic baby bottles and went ahead and ordered (hard to find) glass ones. She had done it without asking me, even though this is an area of my scientific expertise. She had already made up her mind and whatever I had to say, especially my habitual over-nuanced explanations, wouldn’t have made a difference. Now in the wake of the NTP report and Canada’s decision to begin the process that might lead to the banning the importation, sale and advertising of polycarbonate baby bottles which contain bisphenol A, retailer Walmart will pull BPA containing baby bottles and Nalgene, maker of BPA containing water bottles, has announced intentions of abandoning BPA containing plastic bottles. The market is speaking. Loudly.
The facts on the ground aside, the BPA story is another illustration of how the Bush administration and the Clinton administration before it have been in bed with industry:
Despite more than 100 published studies by government scientists and university laboratories that have raised health concerns about a chemical compound that is central to the multibillion-dollar plastics industry, the Food and Drug Administration has deemed it safe largely because of two studies, both funded by an industry trade group.
The agency says it has relied on research backed by the American Plastics Council because it had input on its design, monitored its progress and reviewed the raw data.
The compound, bisphenol A (BPA), has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, behavioral disorders and reproductive health problems in laboratory animals.
As David Michaels has documented in his new book, Doubt is their Product, the plastics industry strategy of manufacturing scientific confusion is a time tested and effective way to delay or even prevent regulation of mass exposures to questionable chemicals. It is a strategy that also affects the public view of science:
The Orwellian strategy of dismissing research conducted by the scientific community as “junk science” and elevating science conducted by product defense specialists to “sound science” status also creates confusion about the very nature of scientific inquiry and undermines the public’s confidence in science’s ability to address public health and environmental concerns. (Doubt is Their Produce site)
Skeptical? Michaels has not only written a stunning exposé of this practice, using thousands of pages of documents, but he has put many of the documents themselves up on the web for anyone to see (here; scroll down)
Want more? The WaPo article (by all means read it; it’s long and juicy) discusses the role of the Weinberg Group, a consulting company specializing in manufacturing scientific confusion for well-heeled clients. Congress is just now beginning an investigation of their effect on regulation. The Weinberg Group has been notorious in scientific circles for years as hired guns (they even bragged about it on their website), so when an investigative journalist for Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T) wrote an exposé using documents disclosed in an EPA docket it came as no surprise to those familiar with the field. But it was an unpleasant surprise for ES&T, the official journal of the American Chemical Society, one of the least enlightened big professional organizations around (see here, here, here and here). They fired the journalist, Paul Thacker, alleging his story on The Weinberg Group was a “hatchet job.” You can read his account of the affair here and decide for yourself.
In fact I urge those readers whose first tendency will be to defend the Bush administration (you know who you are) to actually read the original documents and then defend them. For my part I prefer to defend science.
But maybe that’s just me. And my daughter. And my grandson, 11 months old.