NPR BPA Bias: Silencing the Voice of Scientific Objectivity

"Polly Ph.D. sounds like a hired gun from industry."

That's what asking for more objectivity and accuracy gets you. That's what I got for questioning media coverage of BPA limited to only one viewpoint - that our chemical of the moment, bisphenol-a, is a dangerous toxin that should be banned immediately. The scene of the personal attack: The Leonard Lopate Show on National Public Radio, yes the commercial-free media enterprise that takes pride in its objectivity. Friday's show featured two guests, Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Consumer Report's who'd had a hand in Consumer Report's test finding BPA in common canned foods. The other, Meg Kissinger, an investigative journalist at the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal who co-authored the award-winning "Chemical Fall Out" series that played a not insignificant role in the current media frenzy over BPA. No one else? No. Despite the plentiful scientists who think we may be overestimating the risks? Nada.

Fact after frightening fact, with not so much as a nod to the studies showing links to heart disease and other disease (in humans) and estrogenic and scary effects (in rats) might not be conclusive or in some cases, even particularly "harmful" or relevant. Nor to the decades of studies suggesting BPA is relatively safe. In fact, callers bashed the government for allowing un-tested chemicals in our lives as the guests um-hummed and bad mouthed the feds not to mention chemical companies and the rest of Corporate America.

The worries mounted on the message board:

Plastic wrap
Pet food
Chinese take-out containers
Recycled pizza boxes
Yogurt containers
Britta water filters
Coffee makers
Cell phones
Breast Milk
Powdered baby formula
Polyester clothing

When Lopate, with that soothing and earnest voice I've welcomed (and trusted) for so many years, asked about the Europeans, the guests failed to mention our European allies decided BPA is relatively safe. So much so the European equivalent of the FDA raised the acceptable daily exposure level by a factor of 5. I keep writing "relatively safe" because I refer to current levels of exposure, not the amounts injected into lab rats. Nor the levels in people working in factories and industries where exposure might be much higher and potentially more harmful. I'd be crazy to discount this chemical could be deleterious in larger doses. Lopate made a couple errors of his own, besides not presenting a more balanced panel. He said the FDA "reversed" its stance on BPA. Not quite right, the agency still considers it relatively safe and thus didn't ban it. Yes, it reported some concern based on some of the troubling new studies and called for further study. But it did not do a 180.

But back to NPR and its mounting evidence of harm...

So I posted a comment of my own, a plea for more objectivity, namely a guest who didn't think BPA was completely toxic. Was this an extremist view? Is this not the view of many scientists? Even the FDA and many European countries? Did I say BPA was completely safe? Did I even criticize the views of the guests? Not a bit. No, I even said I'd thrown away the BPA baby bottles. But I also mentioned, the science-minded independent site that takes on misinformation in the media including the buzz around BPA. The latter setting in motion an attack on STATS:

Correction for Polly Palumbo [17]: is not independent. The latest tax returns show that STATS was funded exclusively by the Sarah Scaife Foundation. The bulk of Scaife's money comes from Exxon, one of the major BPA makers. STATS' mission is to monitor news coverage.
Tax returns? Obviously this didn't come from another mom sitting in the school car line. Turns out, Meg Kissinger, the show's guest posted it. So what we got is a ****storm between Kissinger and STATS, yes, the same STATS that posted a very lengthy critique of her Chemical Fall Out series.  True, STATS is funded by the above foundation that is largely conservative - but it's also funded by other sources. STATS posted several lengthy refuttals of Kissinger's charges in the past - detailing how, despite their funding, they are utterly independent (one by STATS Director Dr. Robert Lichter, the other, by Trevor Butterworth, the author of the Chemical Fall Out critique). Take a peak. You'll see their articles don't adhere to a conservative or a liberal perspective. They simply follow the bad numbers and statistics in the media.

Oh, yeah, and the largely academic STATS staff? Hardly friends of Exxon. As a general rule, Ph.D.s are about as open to corporate suits as Ms. Kissinger is to canned food. The STATS board? Academic researchers and scientists from major research institutions like Harvard, UPenn, and yes, UC Berkeley, that bastion of corporate sensibility.

Let's take a look at STATS head honcho Dr. Robert Lichter courteous of STATS:
President S. Robert Lichter holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and a B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Minnesota. He also serves currently as Professor of Communication at George Mason University and President of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Dr Lichter has also served on the faculties of Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities.
His most recent books include “The Mediated Presidency” (2005), "The Nightly News Nightmare" (2003); "It Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Remake the Scientific Picture of Reality" (2001); "Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal" (2000); and "Environmental Cancer: A Political Disease?" (1999).

His research has also appeared in such scientific journals as Nature, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine; and in many general media outlets, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Christian Science Monitor.

Among his awards are Harvard's Goldsmith Award for Research Excellence and the Solimene Award for Excellence from the New England Medical Writers' Association. Dr. Lichter has been a member of the American Statistics Association and a statistical advisor to Voter News Service. He has testified before Congress on media coverage of scientific issues.
Is this a biased Big Oil man? But if that wasn't enough drama...the attacks on the NPR board became personal, and directed at me, the sole voice of moderation.

So thanks, Nancy from Nyack, New York who thought me dangerous enough to be "a hired gun". I'm flattered. And to my fellow New Jersey resident who admitted "trying to resist personal attack" on me while taking out damn near all scientists because they push "fake results". And told us she (or he?) basically would trust a journalist over a scientist any day of the week. Many thanks for displaying so much anti-scientific sentiment. It's nice to know what we're up against. And to you, Ms. Kissinger, many thanks as well, smearing an organization increasingly recognized as an INDEPENDENT voice of reason and accuracy by major news organizations - and I might add, created to right just the kind of misinformation you've disseminated. I'm glad you've brought it up so we could show the unbiased nature of STATS.   Also, the need for a public discussion of your report on BPA.  Do we need more research, yes.  Do we need all the drama?  No.

Look, I'm certainly no hired gun, no mouthpiece, and no fan of BPA or phthalates or chemical manufacturers. But I refuse to sit around and let the media and other supposed authorities repeatedly present biased and inaccurate news about our health and well-being. It's an affront to my training and my years in research. I listen to the data and trust the scientific process in the belief it can tell us something, even answer crucial questions. If only we listen to it without our preconceived notions and biases getting in the way. Is it sometimes abused? Obviously, Dr. Wakefield gave us an all too exemplary demonstration of corrupt and unethical science.

The scientist aside, I get angry as a parent too. Whether it's breastfeeding and infant formula, vaccines and autism, the peanut allergy epidemic, chemicals or whatever the scare du jour, there are real costs to this repeatedly biased health information.

Just ask the Fearless Formula Feeder what it feels like when you try but just can't breastfeed your child. The disappointment, the guilt, the isolation. The rebukes from other mothers.  All over some relatively small health benefits. Yeah, real costs, social, emotional, and physical too. Look at the cost of the vaccine scare. Measle outbreaks. A rising number of unvaccinated children.

Wanna talk chemicals? Pesticides? The costs of buying organic? Even though we really don't know if organic produce and the like makes us healthier? Phthalates? Buying organic all-natural shampoos and lotions and sunscreens and make-up and toys. Checking every label. BPA? The costs of new baby bottles, water bottles, water filters, and the Sigg water bottles that have been recalled? Minor, sure, especially if BPA turns out to be a troublesome endocrine-disrupter. But we won't know for years and until then, we've got to deal with the worry and the fall out. The fear and worry over other chemicals. Other substances (infant formula, trans fats, sugar, salt). The distrust for the FDA. The EPA. Any health authority and especially, scientists.

Ask your pediatrician about how these scares have impacted their day to day practice. Comforting parents. Assuring new moms and dads that infant formula or a bottle or a pacifier isn't a major health risk. Easy to do compared to the vaccine speech.

Prepare yourself because the threats and guilt are going to only increase as we're entering the age of epigenetics. Or as a recent Time magazine cover story put it "the science of epigentics reveals how the choices you make can change your genes- and those of your kids". Not entirely accurate - your behavior influences not your DNA (or so most think) but the epigenome, basically the chemicals that turn on (or turn off) your genes. Amazing scientists around the world, the epigenome, like the once-powerful gene, can be transmitted to future generations without a change in the actual gene. So your kids inherit not only genes but epigenomes, meaning, the switches that either express or silence the genes. Basically, you're responsible for whether or not your grandkids' cancer gene will be suppressed or activated. So now we'll be treated to a stream of news about how our choices, say diet, can influence whether or not our children and grandchildren get cancer, heart disease, and I'd imagine, autism, ADHD, and who knows what else. Among some preliminary human research, one study suggested men who'd smoked before puberty put their son's at greater risk for obesity, heart disease and other worrisome health conditions. But it's not only our bad behavior we're gonna hear about. I keep thinking about the rats mommas who basically gave their grand kids cancer by not getting enough of a common mineral. Really. Not enough Vitamin K or something like that. There's no telling what I'm now doing to my future grand babies.

It's mind-boggling and I'm not sure we're prepared for the onslaught. Is that how we want to live? Surrounded by constant worry about an increasingly wide array of potential risks to an increasing number of kinfolk? We think parenting in 2010 is stressful, get ready, it's gonna get worse. All the more reason to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. And just say no to the fear-mongering,

Some days I wonder where my like-minded friends are hiding out. Obviously not on the NPR message board. How are other parents dealing with all the threats? Do you care that we're not getting accurate information? Do you get angry? Have you tuned out? Stopped caring? Feeling overwhelmed? Ready to listen to whatever your best friend, older sister, or doctor says? Just curious....


Mom2BB said...

Amazing. I admit BPA frightens me but thanks for speaking up.

susan said...

I always thought NPR balanced. Oh well.