Analyzing the media’s coverage of the risk from phthalates, a family of oil-like chemicals that make plastics flexible, for STATS has, arguably, been one of the most challenging and frustrating assignments for my colleague Dr. Rebecca Goldin (a scientist) and myself (a journalist).
With environmental activist groups and politicians such as Fiona Ma in San Francisco taking their policy guidance on the issue from a handful of scientists, who see no reason not to issue the direst of warnings, and with the media reporting the urgency of that risk, particularly with regard to what might happen to children sucking on vinyl toys, our attempt to argue for a broader perspective – one that should dispassionately consider the full body of research and places the risk in context – has fallen, largely, on deaf ears.
It has also put us in the worrisome position of seeming as if we were and are arguing, scientifically, for the perspective that there really isn’t much of a risk at all, instead of just arguing for all the evidence to be brought to the public’s attention.
This problem has been aggravated by the sheer clumsiness of so much media reporting and editorializing – notably the repeated citation of the ban in Europe on some phthalates as a clear scientific reason to ban them in the U.S., when, in fact, the ban in Europe short-circuited the EU’s own scientific risk assessment and ended up being a political decision. (See? We can’t let go!)
So we were both taken aback by the vehemence of someone who can speak with considerable scientific authority delivering a message from the other side of the debate William S. Knowles, one of the recipients of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, denounced the campaign against phthalates in an op-ed for the Pittsburg Tribune Review on Sunday May 11 – The phthalates scare: We are not at risk – as one pitting politicians, urged on by environmentalists, against the scientific community.
Lawmakers — representing the concern of parents influenced by certain environmentalists — are calling for an outright ban of phthalates from children’s toys because of the misguided belief that by exposing children to toys made with these chemicals we are putting their health at risk.
Phthalates have a long history of attacks by environmental groups dating back more than 30 years. Even then babies were of prime consideration. Few chemicals have undergone such extensive testing and survived as being safe.”
So far, there has been no response from the ‘ban-phthalates’ side to this broadside. When it comes, no doubt the line of attack will be that Professor Knowles is retired and old, and hasn’t kept up with the research, and was an employee of Monsanto, and is thereby disposed towards an industrial perspective on plastics. Still, the fact remains that Knowles contribution to chemistry – catalytic asymmetric synthesis – is not merely technically dazzling, but of immense practical consequence. Indeed, his work is of foundational value for green chemistry. And surely that should give us all pause for some scientific reflection on this all too-easily politicized issue?