Monday, May 09, 2011

Hitting the BPA-free Bottle: Home Decor, Hype and Toxins

What does toxicology have in common with interior design?

Nothing.

Almost nothing.

Save journalist Dominique Browning.  The latest "science" writer taking on BPA.  She's also the former editor-in-chief of House and Garden whose op-ed Hitting the Bottle appeared in today's New York Times.

After perusing the baby aisles for gifts, Ms. Browning laments all the BPA-free sippy cups and baby bottles.  In her words - "it breaks my heart." She worries the alternatives may be more dangerous than BPA, the much suspected endocrine disrupter.

Can't say I disagree with the one-time doyenne of decor who also wishes substances were more fully tested for safety before showing up on store shelves.  Who doesn't? Though of course no one's about to actually test worrisome substances on babies and small children.

Can you imagine the informed consent form? 

We're pretty sure Goo X is safe and almost entirely without permanent side effects.  Please sign on the dotted line to participate. After your participation is complete you will receive $150 dollars for your time and effort (and possible medical bills).  

While I get Dominique's suspicion over the new substances replacing BPA in baby products, I can't completely applaud here. Like so many media outcries over BPA and it's chemical cousin, phthalates, however, Ms. Browning's plea lacks nuance or in design speak, the fine attention to detail that transforms a space:
There is growing evidence in animal studies that exposure during fetal growth affects the development of reproductive systems and, in offspring, can lead to neurological problems. BPA has also been linked to prostate and breast cancer.
Never mind a raft of experts who've repeatedly cautioned human harm cannot be inferred from rat studies.  Never mind many of those furry creatures received injections far surpassing normal human intake.  Never mind the lack of evidence of disrupted reproductive systems in humans. Never mind that links to cancer and heart disease might be better explained by other factors besides BPA.  Never mind that even tiny newborns rather quickly rid their bodies of BPA.

Such details make all the difference.  Her suggestion the government is sitting silent while toxins permeate baby products doesn't quite get at the full picture:
Because the federal government has taken no action to ban or even limit BPA, some states have taken matters into their own hands.  
More accurately, the FDA has not "taken no action." The agency has not ignored the issue.  It has revisited BPA several times over the last decade and decided as of January 2010 there was not enough evidence to ban it though it's recommending people (and parents) reduce exposure.  In other words, they don't think it's terribly hazardous though they're not completely confident but awaiting further evidence.

Doesn't take a scientifically untrained journalist to brush over these fine details.  But I have to question why the New York Times, one of the most highly respected media organizations, published a sciency piece written by a woman though highly articulate and successful still remains unqualified in the realm of science despite her recent attention to environmental concerns. 

A quick review of Ms. Browning's web page, though wildly impressive by anyone's standards, reveals no sign of advanced training or experience in research methods, toxicology, chemistry, biology, medicine, health care or any other field touching on scientific methods.  A major in Philosophy, Literature and History might have prevented a course in quantitative research methods.  Although she now writes a blog at the Environmental Defense Fund, this hardly qualifies her as a BPA expert.

Maybe it's just me.  Maybe I shouldn't expect the experts amongst us to write the op-eds that often annoy me anyhow for their inaccuracy even when authored by recognized authorities.  In fact op-eds remind me of the 5-paragraph essays I had to write in high school.  Pick a thesis then find your three main arguments and supporting evidence and boom, you're done.  I can't forget the girl who argued Hamlet was like a light bulb.  Amusing and well-written but ultimately not so reasonable. 

So it's hard to know how much trust to place in science/health journalists when they're not adept at picking apart the research, even when their opinions and arguments seem valid.

Should we expect more from the NY Times? If a respected editor transitions from lifestyle to health/science do we still treat her like an authority?

An interior design specialist wouldn't be my first choice for guidance in assessing possible toxins.  Next time the FDA selects a panel to review BPA I doubt they'd make inquiries at Elle Decor.  Not even the high-minded Architectural Digest.  

2 comments:

emilyhall said...

Thank you for this--I can't tell you how many times this has popped up in my facebook feed, some friend or another saying, "See? Even the NYT says it's true!" Never mind that it's an opinion piece, and no proof is cited. It makes me very, very tired.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Welcome Emily! Maybe we should email the op-ed editor every day. Do you he'd ever read our objections?