The spin does not stop here

Paul Alexander Author, "Machiavelli's Shadow"
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Both the right and the left complain about media bias, when news organizations favor one political ideology over another. But can pure science be subjected to media bias?

These days, a debate is raging that could have a profound effect on business, especially food production manufacturing. It centers on a chemical named Bisphenol A, or BPA. There’s an enormous amount of media coverage of BPA, much of it negative, but, as is the case with so many political topics today, does the consumer need to unpack the spin behind a story about BPA to get at the truth? Can the media spin science?

First, the back story.

Since the 1960s, BPA has been used to harden plastic in an assortment of products ranging from eyeglasses to sporting equipment. It is also added to the epoxy coating that lines most metal food and drink cans. For decades, BPA was utilized without incident, but in recent years environmental advocacy groups have claimed that, because it is being consumed in larger amounts, it is harmful to humans. The groups point to experiments, often conducted on animals, suggesting that BPA may be an “endocrine disruptor,” an agent that damages the reproductive system, or the cause of a variety of illnesses, including diabetes and cancer.

Industry stands by the substance. “Based on the science,” says Steven G. Hentges of the American Chemistry Council, “regulators have repeatedly declared BPA to be safe.” But the advocacy groups dismiss such claims as biased. The fight has become so intense that, following the lead of Canada and France, California is now poised to classify the chemical as a toxin.

What is interesting is the way the media has dealt with the controversy. When a study appears suggesting BPA is unsafe, screaming headlines follow. Consider the coverage given to a study conducted by University of California scientist Michael Baker, published in the online journal PLOS ONE. A look at how BPA metabolizes in the human body produced an avalanche of articles with fear-producing headlines like “Common Chemical Found in Plastics Poses Threat to Public Heath” and “BPA is Bad to the Bone, Now We Know Why.” One report warned: “BPA is no friend to the consumer.” Yet neither science nor medicine has documented an illness produced by BPA.

Often, a publication does not even need a study to spark panic. In the spring of 2012, Mother Earth News interviewed an expert who believed the government was “covering up or ignoring [the] serious health risks of BPA.” That interview ran under the not-so-subtle headline “Is There Poison in Our Food? Concerns about BPA.”

On the other hand, news to the contrary — that BPA is safe — is given scant attention. Take last month’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Justin Teeguarden, a toxicologist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, discussed his analysis of 150 scientific studies. Those studies, he learned, routinely inflate the quantity of BPA given to test subjects far beyond the amount humans consume, producing exaggerated — and unreliable — results.

“Human internal exposure to BPA,” Teeguarden concluded, “are below levels we would expect to cause toxicity in the general population and children.” In short, BPA poses no health risk. What kind of coverage did Teeguarden get? Little at best. A search of Google News turns up a mere smattering of articles.

Just as often, the essence of a report about BPA is reinterpreted in the media coverage. Last month, researchers at Duke University released a study about BPA and its effect on the brain. “Our study,” scientist Wolfgang Liedtke wrote, “found that BPA may impair the development of the central nervous system and raises the question as to whether exposure could predispose animals and humans to neurodevelopmental disorders.” The language was guarded — “may impair,” “raises questions.”

But nuanced phrasing disappeared in CBS’s reporting. The headline on CBS’s website declared: “BPA Exposure Linked to Genetic Changes That Alter Brain Development.” The article opened: “BPA is back in the news, now that a new study has linked the controversial chemical to potentially dangerous effects on a child’s developing nervous system.” “May” had become “linked,” making it sound like a statement of fact.

By the time the study was discussed on a television program in Australia, that statement of fact prompted one commentator to draw a conclusion. “If this particular study doesn’t mark the death knell of BPA finally, I would be surprised,” said Mariann Lloyd-Smith, an advisor to Australia’s National Toxic Network. Never mind that that conclusion was not supported by the study itself.

In fact, for this study, researchers had tested BPA’s effects by slicing brain cells from a mouse and soaking them in BPA, hardly the way the substance is found in humans. “The reported effects lack any common pattern consistent with a hormonal mode of action,” says Julie Goodman of the Harvard School of Public Health about these types of non-human studies, “and do not support BPA effects at human exposure levels.”

Sometimes, though, the only thing more misleading than a study’s methodology is the press coverage of its findings. Until spin is removed from the coverage, it will be impossible for agencies like the Food and Drug Administration to make a final, informed decision on BPA. In the meantime, the debate rages on.

Paul Alexander has published nonfiction in, among numerous other places, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The Guardian. His eight books include “Man of the People: The Life of John McCain” and “Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove.”