Toys, food, packaging. Chemicals are in them all. The media make a living by sensationalizing the potential dangers of just about everything in our modern world. Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical found in many plastic items, was no exception.
The news media have been scaremongering about BPA for years, even going so far as to compare it to tobacco at one point, but a cautious tone from the government and left-wing junk science prompted recent hyperbole from reporters.
Reuters warned of a "potential carcinogen in my soup," June 9. News website Newser.com took the fear-mongering a step further calling BPA "a known carcinogen" in a May 19 story about the "dangerously high" levels of BPA in canned food and drink.
But according to the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing the chemical industry, BPA is not a known carcinogen. Its website says "based on sound, robust scientific evidence, some government bodies around the world have concluded that BPA is not carcinogenic in humans."
The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) latest report on BPA, a chemical used to harden plastic and a primary ingredient in the plastic resin that protects the flavor of food in metal cans, said that studies "have thus far supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA." New results from the National Toxicology Program caused FDA to request more research about the effects of BPA and recommended "reasonable steps" to "reduce" exposure, particularly in infants and children. FDA made it clear that BPA has not yet been proven harmful to humans at current levels.
Scientific evidence hasn't prevented the news networks from trying to scare the public away from BPA. In an interview on the Feb. 25 CBS "Early Show," food critic Katie Lee told co-anchor Harry Smith to avoid plastic containers for leftover food because they usually contain BPA.
"And that's been shown to cause liver disease, heart failure, all sorts of things," Lee claimed. Smith chimed in saying, "I think it's already been banned in Canada."
Smith was wrong about Canada - they didn't ban the chemical outright, rather they banned the chemical from use in baby bottles. Neither Lee nor Smith consulted any scientists, or mentioned anything about the many studies that have confirmed the safety of BPA.
Health News Digest pointed out that more than 5,400 scientific journal articles have been published on the safety of BPA. The FDA has deemed BPA safe for years, only choosing to caution people about "some concern" relating to children and infants in 2010. The FDA made it clear that more research was needed before the agency would decide to regulate the chemical.
But that hasn't stopped the network news media from warning viewers not to use BPA products because they "cause" health problems.
Jeff Stier of American Council on Science and Health reacted to the May 2010 canned good study saying, "Of course BPA is ‘linked' to obesity and cancer, because these people linked it. There's no causal relationship, but you can say there is a link between anything you want, just based on animal studies."
A Junk Science Study Stirs Up Media against BPA
In May 2010, the left-wing, pro-regulatory group U.S. PIRG sent out a press release about the National Workgroup for Safe Markets' study of canned foods and drinks in which they claimed "alarming levels" of BPA were present in common canned foods.
"BPA is a synthetic sex hormone and exposure to low doses has been linked to abnormal behavior, diabetes, heart disease, infertility, developmental and reproductive harm, and obesity, which raises the risk of early puberty, a known risk factor for breast cancer," the PIRG released claimed.
That press release also touted liberal Sen. Dianne Feinstein's, D- Calif., support for legislation to ban BPA in cans and other food and beverage containers. Feinstein is trying to add an amendment to ban BPA to S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.
The media quickly repeated the scary study's findings that BPA was found in 92 percent of canned goods tested. Reuters hyperbolically headlined its story: "Waiter, there's a potential carcinogen in my soup."
CBS "Morning News" warned that "A new study finds food and drink from metal cans may be contaminated with a chemical linked to a number of disorders. And some lawmakers want the chemical banned."
While CBS's Sandra Hughes mentioned that the study was tiny - only 50 cans were tested - she expressed no skepticism about the results on May 19. Her story was also stacked against BPA with two interviewees in favor of avoiding canned foods or banning the chemical, and only a statement from the Chemical Industry Council.
On May 18, CNN took the study seriously enough that Elizabeth Cohen impractically advocated that people should "start your own garden" just before saying that the people who wrote the study "think that a lot of BPA can make you infertile."
Robert L. Brent, MD, PhD, D.Sc., and adviser to the American Council on Science and Health condemned the study as a lot of hype designed to frighten the public.
Brent said, "The National Workgroup for Safe Markets publication wasn't intended to educate the public about risks, but to frighten unsophisticated scientists and the public. We should respond to such garbage with good science."
He explained that human exposure to BPA has "been exhaustively studied." After mentioning different studies that have bee done, Brent said "the important point is that human serum concentrations of BPA are very, very low, far below any expected toxic effects."
"The overwhelming scientific evidence points to the conclusion that at current human exposure levels, BPA is not toxic - and specifically is not linked to the myriad diseases outlined in the National Workgroup for Safe Markets report released earlier this week," Brent concluded.
Coca-Cola also hit back against the study telling Reuters, "A person weighing 135 pounds (61 kg) would need to ingest more than 14,800 12-ounce cans of a beverage in one day to approach the FDA's acceptable daily limit for BPA consumption."
But Reuters buried Coca-Cola's statement and other information about the large amounts of BPA that would have to be ingested to be compared to rodent tests, waiting until the 38th paragraph of its 55 paragraph story to bring it up.
BPA Scare: 2008-2010
Journalists have hyped the dangers of BPA for years, despite evidence to the contrary.
Back in April 2008, NBC's "Today" warned about the reproductive dangers of ingesting BPA from reusable plastic water bottles. NBC had already campaigned against ordinary plastic water bottles, arguing that they were bad for the environment.
But the miniscule levels of BPA found in reusable water bottles is thousands of times less than what levels linked to rodent health problems, according to Dr. Gilbert Ross of ACSH.
But that didn't stop "Today" from warning against many types of water bottles, including the popular Nalgene brand. "[I]n the meantime, you can always check that number on the bottom [the indicator of what type of plastic used is]," reporter Michelle Kosinski said, "or just go back to old-fashioned glass."
Some reporters have advocated a return to glassware without stating the obvious inconvenience (try biking with a heavy glass water bottle) and danger (glass shatters).
In 2009, the crusade against BPA continued. MSNBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman, raised concerns about BPA saying "It's a synthetic estrogen that some scientists believe can be linked to everything from breast cancer to obesity. We associate it with plastic water bottles, but now Consumer Reports says that BPA is even in canned foods." But even Snyderman had to admit the study was inconclusive and based on "soft science."
Her guest New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof continued to hype the danger by comparing BPA to tobacco: "To me, it feels a little bit like tobacco in the 1970s when, you know, there is growing evidence and scientists understand the causal pathways and we don't entirely understand at what dosage and at what stage of life those adverse consequences really build up."
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