Endocrine Disruptors, Autistic Rats and Dramatic Claims: Nicholas Kristof is Killing Me

Playdate withChemophobia  (Credit: New York Times)
At least his amateur toxicology is killing my end of summer zen.

Forget the slow lazy last days of summer. I know, as if what with the early lacrosse practice and scramble to finish the required summer reading. Pretend with me for a moment that you and I have nothing better to do than finish off the last of the marshmallows congealed in the heat and debate the attraction of a Twenty-Something Pop Singer to an 18 year-old Political Heir.

Time to snap out of TMZ dreamland because in the past week or so parents have been visited upon by a potentially important trifecta of children's health happenings.
First a new perhaps valuable autism study landed in the news, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its mind on circumcision (to pro-snip) and now this, New York Times foreign affairs-columnist-turned-(anti)chemical crusader Nicholas Kristof has proffered up his platform for yet another earnest plea for his latest human rights issue, the nefarious effects of endocrine disruptors (i.e. carcinogens), in this case, bisphenol-a.  Yes, there's another study out and it looks bad for BPA:
Now Endocrinology, a peer-reviewed journal, has published a study measuring the impact of low doses of BPA. The study is devastating for the chemical industry. Big Chem, Big Harm. New York Times
So devastating you might not have heard about it save the spotlight generally reserved for human trafficking and other social injustices.
Pregnant mice were exposed to BPA at dosages analogous to those humans typically receive. The offspring were less sociable than control mice (using metrics often used to assess an aspect of autism in humans), and various effects were also evident for the next three generations of mice.
Holy metrics! Gestating rodents. Various effects.

No discourse on the toxicology of everyday life not to mention developing brains and fragile fetuses would be complete without a reference to autism.

Apparently ADHD got the day off.

Let's pretend that there are autistic rats.  Let's pretend we can apply autism inventories to our furry friends.  Let's even pretend that our study co-authors include animal behavior specialists and someone who might have traded notes with an autism expert.  It's 90 degrees and I'm about to order a dunk tank so I only have so much mental energy for quibbling. 

Given the quite large and growing body of research on the effects of endocrine-disruptors it's worth wondering if Mr. Kristof's selective reporting accurately portrays the latest research.  Figuring out if BPA and other chemical consorts are the next nicotine or thalidomide is no easy task.  As he admits "the challenge is that they involve complex science and considerable uncertainty." Yet somehow he perseveres through the complicated assays and statistics, the piles of mixed results and renders his own resounding verdict.


He calls upon other like-minded individuals: 1) New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, 2) the co-authors of the above study and 3) John Peterson Myers, CEO and founder of Environmental Health Sciences and co-author of Our Stolen Future, a treatise on how toxins mess up fetuses.  In other words, there are no voices in any way critical of the latest and greatest study anywhere near his column.   

Consider yourself warned.  Kristof is now perusing the scientific literature at will:
Yet, a few years ago, I began to read the peer-reviewed journal articles, and it became obvious that the opposition to endocrine disruptors is led by toxicologists, endocrinologists, urologists and pediatricians.* These are serious scientists, yet they don’t often have the ear of politicians or journalists.**
* Excluding the majority of toxicologists, endocrinologists, urologists and pediatricians. Or for that matter, the FDA and their perennial covering-our-you-know-what routine.

** Except the ear of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and friends who've passed the Safe Chemicals Act. Oh and the many journalists mucking up the media with the dangers of BPA in just about everything.  Excuse me but it was BPA that manufacturers removed from baby products several years ago to much fanfare. You do remember throwing away all the sippy cups and baby bottles, right?

I have no idea if bisphenol-a and other disruptors of endocrine or even phthalates are slowly killing me and my kids' kids. Nor does he. Nor does anyone else with or without expertise in the area.

It's not as if NK doesn't know it's a bit of a stretch for him to take up chemistry and biology.
Maybe it seems surprising to read a newspaper column about chemical safety because this isn’t an issue in the presidential campaign or even firmly on the national agenda. It’s not the kind of thing that we in the news media cover much.
Especially those "we in the media" who have no expertise in the matters of toxicology, health, scientific inquiry or any other realms that might quality him to make proclamations on the topic.  Sadly I'm not really all that surprised given the New Media Landscape (i.e. politicos covering science, interior design editors covering health, film actresses covering parenting).

By all means, yes, let's get the conversation started.  The national media rarely if ever addresses the accuracy of actual health news and claims as opposed to endless speculation and analysis of heath care policies penned by presidential or aspiring-to-presidential parties. Absolutely we should be treated to more information about solid studies into potential environmental toxins. Absolutely I'd like a heads up if my sofa or canned soup is going to deform my grandkids' genitals.

Only it's difficult to trust the accuracy of a journalist writing on a highly technical topic full of ambiguous results.  The last thing parents need is a dramatic distorted representation of the evidence. 

It's easy for me to sit back and criticize champions of a less toxic environment and anyone else who presents potentially inaccurate or otherwise suspicious claims. True, I'm beholden to no editor or for that matter circulation department so I can get all hysterical and often do but somehow drama ( "devastating" study, really?) seems wrong coming from a Times foreign affairs columnist insisting on translating selective findings from the Journal of Everything Is Toxic.   

I'm no fan of endocrine-disruptors and I'm a closet hypochondriac with no family medical history who's surely suffering from an undetected rare medical condition who's never microwaved plastic but seriously, do we need a journalist specializing in social justice scouring medical journals and disseminating potentially inaccurate health information?  Plenty of others are already doing just that including "science" writers, celebrities and politicians (see Todd Akin, he of the Senate Science, Space and Technology Committee).   

Next we know Kristof will be popping up on CNN as a Health Expert promoting a book. Let's hope it doesn't turn out to be the environmental Tipping Point or Blink, yet another well-written but simplistic one-sided pop-science bestseller.  As if we need another one of those.     

If bisphenol-a turns out to be the evil step-cousin of saccharin or worse I'll gladly sip from my Swiss water bottle and watch the Oscar-nominated drama where the empathetic but steely (and in Hollywood, photogenic) investigative journalist saves kids (and their grandkids) from corporate malfeasance. I'll cheer when the mothers and fathers of the stricken children stand up one at a time and vote not to settle but have their day in court. I'll forgo microwaved popcorn and nosh on organic berries. I'll throw away my beloved plastic kiddie bowls from Ikea. I will even promise to never shut the door in the face of another PIRG volunteer unless of course dinner really is burning.    

However, I refuse to apologize for questioning Mr. Kristof's understanding of scientific evidence or his chemophobia.     

UPDATE: I'm not the only one worried about Mr. Kristof. Science writer Deborah Blum has concerns.  You can find her old column on PLoS. Oh yes and the stats skeptic with the best name ever, the one and only Trevor Butterworth of STATS over at Forbes.

Of course I've been minding Mr. Kristof since way back in 2009 when he launched his chemical crusade. And in 2010. Couldn't help but write this post last May. 

An unfinished draft was posted earlier.  Replaced it with final verion.  My apologies.


Barbara @therextras said...

" Only it's difficult to trust the accuracy of a journalist writing on a highly technical topic full of ambiguous results."

Unfortunate, many find this too easy. Keep shining the light, Polly!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Shine the Light! Loved that movie. Hear the Stone are going to tour again.