Newsweek really needs to do some fact checking. In a piece that ran last week on the safety of the chemical Bisphenol-A (commonly called BPA), writer Douglas Main couldn’t even do a simple Google search on his sources before publishing the piece.
He writes (emphasis mine):
To date, there have been around 1,000 animal studies on BPA, and the vast majority show that it causes or is linked to many health problems, from alterations in fertility to increased risk for cancers and cardiovascular problems to impaired brain development, says Frederick vom Saal, a longtime researcher of the product at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Oy! There’s so much wrong with that paragraph. Let me start off by explaining a little something about “studies.” Reporters like to throw around the word “studies” and the phrase “studies show” but they often don’t read any of those studies or check on the validity of the study. But this is an important thing to do, especially if you’re going to use the so-called study in a story that will scare the crap out of millions of Americans.
The most important thing to understand about “studies,” is that there are studies that mimic how humans come in contact with chemicals like BPA (eating canned soup, touching receipts, handling plastic things) and then there are studies that don’t in any way replicate human interaction.
An example of that latter study is to inject large doses of BPA directly into the blood streams of rats. Tell me, do you know of anyone mainlining BPA? If so, get that person psychological help. Another strategy is to feed large quantities of BPA to lab rats. Are you sitting down to a large, hot steaming bucket of BPA? If so, yes, there’s a problem. Still other strategies involve injecting BPA directly into living cells in a peti dish. Are you doing this? Then you’re an oddball. There’s even a study that involved injecting BPA directly into monkey’s brains. Are you injecting a syringe full of BPA into your brain? If not, super, you’re fine.
(You can listen to my podcast on this subject here)
So, I think it’s important to put out there that yes, there have been thousands of studies and some in fact do show harm due to BPA exposure. But again, those studies introduce BPA to an animal in a way that humans never experience.
But let’s examine that other category of studies—the ones that attempt to mimic the way humans normally come in contact with BPA. Even with these studies, the scientists usually expose the HUMAN (see that? That’s right, these studies actually involve the species we’re worried about) to larger doses of BPA than a human would normally come in contact with. The reason? So that they can establish that there’s no harm even at larger doses than humans would normally consume.
In studies like these, no harm has ever been demonstrated.
So, look, I’m a mom and I don’t have a science degree but I don’t think it’s hard to understand a few concepts about what makes a scientific study relevant to the way in which humans come in contact with chemicals. So, if I can do it, why can’t Newsweek reporter Douglas Main. Or, for heavens sake, why can’t an editor at Newsweek?
Next, Main quotes “long-time researcher” Frederick vom Saal but manages to leave out that vom Saal doesn’t have the best reputation in the scientific community. I’ve written about him before and the press’ inability to check his record when quoting him:
A quick primer on vom Saal. First, he’s a well-known anti-chemical activist who has been called out within the scientific community for unscientific tactics in academic research. His research has been dismissed by the National Toxicology Program. For more on him, read Trevor Butterworth’s thorough examination of vom Saal’s anti-BPA mission as well as this piece by Dr. Richard Sharpe, a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and an expert on reproductive health issues.
Now, if I were a reporter who covered the chemical beat, vom Saal is a name I would most certainly notice. Given vom Saal’s dodgy record, a responsible reporter would immediately question the validity of the research.
Call me crazy, but that seems to be the basics of good journalism.
Later in the piece, Main does mention a researcher who has done fantastic work researching BPA safety. He writes:
Justin Teeguarden, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, published a study last month investigating the impact of consuming soup containing six times the FDA’s acceptable daily intake (which is five micrograms per kilogram of body weight, according to Eisenman). The 10 men tested ended up with blood concentrations of BPA of about 0.1 ppb, 10 times lower than levels found in vom Saal’s review. Teeguarden says the vast majority of people probably have BPA blood levels much lower than this, since these subjects were exposed to thousands of times “more BPA than most are exposed to.”
But then, Main claims Teeguarden’s missing a key element—non-food sources, like handling receipts. Ummm, how much shopping does Main think we’re doing?
Moreover, if Main is going to bring up receipts (annoyingly, he again quotes his favorite junk scientist vom Saal), might he do his readers a favor and mention another study (he likes to use the word “study” so why not mention one more) conducted by researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki Finland, which examined the exposure levels of cashiers instead of just random shoppers. The reason is obvious; cashiers touch a lot more receipts than your average shopper. In fact, cashiers touch every single receipt as they hand it to the shopper.
The study was set up to capture just how many times a cashier touches the receipt paper. From page 2 of the study’s summery of “materials and methods”:
A working day was set to 8 h, including lunch and refreshment breaks. A thermal paper receipt containing 0.9% (w/w) BPA was firmly held by three fingers, the BPA-containing side of the paper being in contact with the pads of the forefinger and the middle finger.
During the experiment, the paper receipt was handled about 140 times, and the total times the paper’s contact with the fingers was approximately 11 min.
The calculated maximum BPA excretion per day after handling thermal paper was less than 0.2 mg/kg of body weight, suggesting a total daily intake over 25 times lower than the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) proposal for a temporary tolerable daily intake (temporary TDI) (5 mg/kg/day).
So, let’s put that in English: According to this Finnish study, a cashier working an 8-hour shift would touch 140 receipts and still have exposure 25 times below safe established levels. That means, a cashier would have to handle 3,500 receipts in a shift, just to come up to the safe intake values that have been calculated by government scientists and regulatory agencies.
As the study shows, cashiers touch around 140 receipts in an 8-hour shift so it’s simply impossible for them to reach levels that would be toxic. In other words, you’re fine. I’m fine. Newsweek's Douglas Main is fine.
Newsweek owes its readers the truth, not made up stories of danger. Once these stories are out there, they are hard to correct. People read them, they become scared and they demand changes to a product when it wasn’t even harmful in the first place. Perhaps that’s by design. But consumers should know there’s sloppy reporting out there that only adds to the Culture of Alarmism.