Recently, a flurry of news stories have claimed that widely used chemicals called phthalates could be “feminizing” boys whose mothers registered higher than average phthalate levels while pregnant. If true, such a claim would be cause for great alarm. Phthalates are widely used compounds that make many every day products in our lives possible. Thankfully though, these reports are much closer to science fiction than science news.
The study being referenced, a report by bio-statistician Shanna Swan, is a continuation of a long running attempt by Swan to demonstrate harmful effects in humans, caused by exposure to certain phthalates. She’s yet to succeed. In fact, over that past two decades, Swan has cultivated a successful career testing various safe chemicals into doubt, by studying them until she is able to produce evidence of anomalies that can be used to question the safety of the tested substances. Despite millions in funding, from among other sources, the U.S. EPA for her campaign to test phthalates into doubt, Swan has never demonstrated any direct correlation between phthalate exposure and health problems in humans. Moreover the gauge for the purported feminization her latest study claims to demonstrate is nothing more than a subjective “masculinity score” that relies on the opinions of the mothers of the children. Accordingly, the results are less than clear cut.
Such sensational claims are often misportrayed when reported in the media. The notion of a widely used chemical “feminizing” boys across the country is simply too good a story to pass up. Yet many reporters and most of the public, simply don’t know how to put these supposed risks into perspective. The extraordinary implications a headline such as, “chemical turns boys into girls,” eviscerates logical concern. Rather than contextually examine the evidence for or against this bold statement, we quite simply panic.
But the reality is that decades of review by independent scientists and numerous government agencies have proven over and over again that phthalates pose no measurable risk to humans. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Toxicology Program, the Center for Disease Control, and a variety of other independent institutions around the world, have all extensively reviewed phthalates, and determined them to be safe.
The difference between their research and Swan’s lies in the headline. Quite simply, “ubiquitous chemical compound still safe,” fails to garner much reader interest. And even if these results were published with the same fervor as Swan’s study, a hundred such stories would have less impact than that single negative headline.
This phenomenon is a reoccurring theme in modern media coverage. In 2007, after questions were raised about lead content in toys from China, media hype drove legislators into a frenzy to protect American children from “unsafe” toys. A.P. reports claimed that as many as one third of U.S. toys were “toxic.” Other reports grouped dangerous substances such as lead and arsenic with safe chemicals like phthalates. And while no child was ever harmed, the outrage over this largely exaggerated hype did have serious consequences for consumers and businesses.
In an effort to address growing public concern, Congress passed a far reaching bill in 2008, called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). This well intentioned legislation missed the mark though, and put a temporary “precautionary” ban in place for commonly used phthalates that had already been reviewed and approved by the government commission responsible for oversight of consumer products. This ban wasted millions of dollars in inventory for businesses, and actually increased the risks to children by requiring the use of largely unstudied alternative chemicals, that lack the proven safety record of phthalates. In fact, none of the alternatives have been risk assessed by a U.S. government. The media frenzy over toys had essentially supported the passage of legislation that put children at greater relative risk – the risk of the unknown.
This example demonstrates that in dealing with complicated scientific analyses, emotion and bias must be removed from the equation; science is, after all, about demonstrable facts. The facts in this case remain that typical human exposure to phthalates is safe. No evidence exists to demonstrate any other conclusion. They also show that while “masculinity scores” and newspaper headlines may offer a different theory, it’s nothing more than theory. Swan’s EPA supported pursuit of fiction, if misunderstood, could have real consequences, as we’ve seen with the rush to pass the CPSIA. When government regulators and the media listen to the newspapers, over their own respected scientists, we all pay.