The National Review Wants to Poison Your Children

Mark Hemingway, the Conservative "tough-guy" for the National Review, has just posted a rant against health concerns for the endocrine disruptor Bisphenol A.

I've seen some estimates that over a billion people have had exposure to BPA and there isn't proof of anything. So why the big scare? I assume trial lawyers are involved in the fear mongering. That's a given. But then I saw that last year two reporters from the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel won a George Polk Award-- a major journalism honor -- for reporting on the "dangers" of BPA. It's another reminder that there are some perverse incentives for journalists. Dramatic reports on threats to public safety win awards. Reporting that those same threats are overblown and likely egged on by those hoping to make millions of off class-action lawsuits is applauded by no one.

Yes, Mark, brave reporting like yours that breaks the lid off the conspiracy to force BPA-free products on an innocent and gullible public. Now, alas, we've been unmasked Scooby Doo style. And we would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you and those pesky kids at The National Review!

[Read on below the fold -- including Hemingway's response in the comments.]

Already the Canadian government had been duped into banning infant bottles made with BPA based on nothing more than the advice of their Department of Health and Department of the Environment. But, as Hemingway understands, the Canadians aren't real Americans like him. As he insisted indignantly:

I couldn't find one reliable study that seemed to substantiate any of these dramatic claims about BPA.

And if Hemingway couldn't find one, then you can be certain they don't exist. Unless, of course, you spend five minutes on Google Scholar.

In the US, the National Institutes of Health Toxicology Program reported that "we have concluded that the possibility that BPA may affect human development cannot be dismissed." This based on some 125 peer-reviewed studies analyzing the adverse health risks of BPA exposure.

In the journal Endocrinology a review carried out by Welshons et al. reported that:

BPA has a wide range of significant effects including structural and neurochemical changes throughout the brain associated with behavioral changes, such as hyperactivity, learning deficits, increased aggression, and increased likelihood of drug dependency; abnormalities in sperm production in males and oocytes in females; disruption of hormone production and fertility in both males and females; immune disorders, increased growth rate; and early sexual maturation.

Interestingly, they also point out that those studies rejecting the evidence for biological effects of BPA:

emanate from corporate-funded publications, 100% of which report that BPA causes no significant effects . . . Endocrinologists are well aware of the issue of corporate bias in research, and this issue has recently received considerable attention in articles published in special issues of journals, in a letter we have published, as well as in a review in Scientific American.

For a sample of other studies reporting biological effects of BPA that Hemingway couldn't find click here.

So, of course, Hemingway is right to focus on the evils of trial lawyers and "gotcha" journalists over the health concerns on BPA. However, he should have added "publicly funded scientific research" to his list of bugbears and hobgoblins. If it hadn't been for them he never would have had to concern himself with the dangers of BPA in the first place. The danger wouldn't exist because no one would know about it and he could remain blissfully ignorant. Instead, given the weight of scientific concern, he is simply ignorant.


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For the record, trial lawyers and the media aren't entirely blameless here. They all make a load of money off of a)lawsuits and b) frontpage news, and in the case of reporters, and "BPA Might Be Bad For You" is not as catchy a headline as "BPA Kills BABIES!!!!!11" This isn't the world's best example--it's an example of overblown fear-mongering over something that *could* be an issue rather than something which is *not* an issue as the National Review would have us believe.
But if I worried about everything the media decides to bounce through their own echo chamber 24/7, (cough. swine flu. cough.) I wouldn't ever leave the house.
So yeah. A pox on them all. The media for making mountains out of molehills for the sake of a gripping story, Trial Lawyers for being, well, Trial Lawyers, and the National Review for never letting complex realities get in the way of their agenda. Good-o, guys!

I grant you that "I couldn't find one reliable study that seemed to substantiate any of these dramatic claims about BPA" might be overstating things a bit. Yes, there are studies that suggest there might be problems -- however, that should probably be weighed against the other part of the sentence where I note that these studies don't necessarily support "dramatic claims" about health risks or claims that justify banning BPA.

Do you not think that the evidence is overwhelmingly on one side of the debate here? And does not that basically substantiate my point about trial lawyers and journalistic incentives? Further, I don't think publicly-funded research is a problem even though the NIH has admitted to funding shoddy research on BPA. I think it's obvious I wasn't trying to turn all publicly funded research into a hobgoblin. That's absurd. Again, it's when that research is abused by journalists and trial lawyers that's a problem. I don't see how we disagree on that point -- which was basically the entire point of my post.

As for whether I am guilty shirking my own journalistic responsibilities by over generalizing in that one sentence you pick apart, well your point is taken. However, if you'd just sent me an email basically stating that it's your opinion the BPA research should be taken a little more seriously with the links above -- I probably would have even put an update or follow-up to my original post acknowledging I might have been too dismissive. But again, I think that could be acknowledged even if we both know that the evidence is overwhelmingly arrayed on one side here. It doesn't undermine what I was saying one bit to admit I should have been marginally less dismissive.

But alas, that would deny you the obvious delight you get from the hyperbolic headline, personal insults and generally dickish tone on display above (and on twitter!). It's obvious to any fair-minded reader that you weren't out to suggest correct any errors on my part so much as berate someone you might otherwise disagree with. I'm not so sure that's a victory for understanding science or public policy. But hey, I'm sure you feel better about yourself, and judging by your response that's what really matters here.

By Mark Hemingway (not verified) on 20 Jul 2009 #permalink

Do you not think that the evidence is overwhelmingly on one side of the debate here? And does not that basically substantiate my point about trial lawyers and journalistic incentives?

I've read that statement several times and I keep shaking my head in disbelief. So, I take it then that you're acknowledging the scientific evidence is "overwhelmingly" on the side of BPA as a health concern? So, if that's the case, it absolutely does NOT substantiate your point. It makes your point look even more ridiculous. But if you're insisting that the scientific consensus holds that BPA is not a health concern you clearly don't understand the science well enough to have an informed opinion.

This is a nuanced scientific issue (as the first commenter correctly identified) and one that has slowly been reaching consensus among researchers. For you to throw your weight around and blithely dismiss this research by claiming "there isn't proof of anything" is, at the very least, shirking your journalistic responsibilities and at most being a propagandist.

I'm no fan of our overly litigious society, but are you suggesting that US trial lawyers are to blame for Canada's decision to restrict BPA use? I had no idea their lobby was so powerful as to influence foreign governments. As for blaming journalists for disseminating "dramatic claims," perhaps you should familiarize yourself with some of the dramatic claims that industry insiders were promoting to undercut public demand for regulation.

Opinions presented in the public sphere are not immune from criticism and I appreciate you acknowledging your errors in judgement. I look forward to the update that will soon appear at The National Review.

If I understand the uses of BPA most of the exposure comes from polycarbonate food containers (hard,"unbreakable" plastic items) and the epoxy lining in canned drinks/foods. Would a simple switch to bottled (glass/or plastic) drinks from canned, switching from canned to (well, I guess it is canned) mason jar type containers for processed foods, and avoiding polycarbonates in serving/storing food be enough? How much exposure comes from flexible PVC products such as flex tubing and pleather?

By Robert S. (not verified) on 20 Jul 2009 #permalink

Wow. This so misunderstands what I wrote it's a complete waste of time to respond. Rhetorical questions are not your strong suit. I'm pretty comfortable letting people read everything and sort out where I'm at.

By Mark Hemingway (not verified) on 20 Jul 2009 #permalink

@Mark: It wasn't merely a rhetorical question. You were very clear that you think there is no science to back up the health concerns. You lay the blame on trial lawyers, first and foremost, and journalists second. However, Canada made the phased ban on BPA products based on sound science from two separate areas: health and environment. So I agree with you, your response was a waste of time. One thing I'm sure we can both find common ground on is the health and well being of our kids. I just had a son and felt the health concerns justified avoiding BPA products. If I were you I would take a second look at the science you dismiss.

@Robert: Thanks for the question. PVC does contain BPA but the amount of exposure is unknown (but probably isn't a significant concern). The primary source of exposure comes from food, particularly when it's heated. The average consumption rate is fairly low, about 1 μg/kg body weight/day (see Kang et al. 2006: doi:10.1016/j.tox.2006.06.009), but can linger in body tissues and accumulate over time (see Stahlhut et al. 2009: doi:10.1289/ehp.0800376). Discarded BPA products also leech into groundwater and accumulate in fish and other animals. At high concentrations it can result in "embryonic deformities, hemorrhage and abnormal behavior" in fish, sex reversal in frogs, turtles and snails and was found to persist longer in sea water than freshwater, but few marine studies have been conducted to date (see Kang et al. 2007: doi:10.1080/10408440701493103).

Health Canada has done an excellent job of explaining the risks associated with BPA and why they recommended the ban on some products of high concern (especially those for infants which are much more susceptible to endocrine disruptors). I encourage you to look through their public reports for some common sense solutions for the short term. Hope that helps.