In July, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a letter that would stop almost any parent in their tracks: Chemicals in food colorings, preservatives and packaging can be dangerous to children, and they aren’t being suitably regulated by the government. A review of almost 4,000 additives found that 64 percent had no research proving they were safe for people to eat or drink; these chemicals can be especially harmful to small children because they are still growing, making them more vulnerable to any ill effects. The AAP called for reforms to the Food and Drug Administration’s food additive regulatory process and offered guidelines that could be more panic-inducing than reassuring: Don’t microwave foods or liquids in plastic, buy fewer processed foods, switch from plastic to glass or metal whenever possible, avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher.
It’s the sort of medical advice that sends people pillaging through their memories — adding up every time they heated a bottle of breast milk in the microwave, tossed Tupperware in the dishwasher or sent their toddler to day care with sliced fruit in a plastic tub. And it’s the sort of information that makes them wonder: If these materials pose such a danger, why are they everywhere? Where is our government?
It’s a good question, with a complex and terrible answer. Scientists have known for some time that many of these chemicals are harmful, but as more evidence accumulates, the industry that produces them has mounted an increasingly aggressive and widespread campaign — publishing counter-studies in corporate-friendly science journals, attacking scientists and journalists who report on the dangers of these chemicals, and doing as much as possible to create doubt about harm, all tactics borrowed from the tobacco industry.
The FDA enjoys much higher levels of public trust than the federal government in general does, but maybe it shouldn’t: Much of what we consume is simply not regulated. “To be blunt, it’s an honor system,” says Erik Olson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former Environmental Protection Agency employee. Olson says that while the EPA does a terrible job of protecting people from dangerous chemicals, the FDA is worse: “They are completely in bed with industry.” With corporate interests creating an alternate scientific reality and little federal pushback, ordinary Americans are left to sort through the noise and try to assess what is safe for themselves and their children.
Olson’s characterizations are echoed in a recent book by Rutgers University professor Norah MacKendrick, “Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics.” MacKendrick writes that the current era of deregulation places an undue burden on parents — mostly on mothers — to make complicated choices to ensure that the products and foods they buy are safe for children, a process she calls “precautionary consumption.” Since the 1950s, food packaging has become increasingly cluttered with often incomprehensible information, and the FDA has provided little help for people who simply want food that is safe.
Before concluding that the FDA is not protecting children, says Leonardo Trasande, director of the division of environmental pediatrics at the NYU School of Medicine and a member of the AAP, the academy spent two years discussing food additive safety. He adds that the statement is a conservative consensus of the AAP’s 67,000 members, who delved into the research on the dangers of chemicals to small children. “This is not a bunch of green, tree-hugging pediatricians,” says Trasande.
A physician by training, Trasande spends most of his time researching and publishing studies to understand how children are affected by BPA, one of the many chemicals highlighted by the AAP. BPA, which can act like the female hormone estrogen, is particularly threatening to kids. A growing body of research finds that tiny doses of BPA may cause a host of diseases; it can “potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems,” the APP says. Yet, Trasande says, much of this academic research is ignored by the government.
As a result, many chemicals go unregulated. Scientists who study the regulatory process point to a well-documented, decades-long disinformation campaign by industry to confuse regulators, policymakers and the public. In 2008, The Washington Post reported that Congress was investigating industry influence at the FDA. This and other articles noted that Congress had identified a private group of researchers that companies hired to create findings favorable to the chemical industry and to undermine studies finding evidence of harm.
An award-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series on the potential dangers of BPA reported in 2009 that the industry’s disinformation campaign included altering Wikipedia pages. A law and lobbying firm for the chemical industry was exposed for attacking scientists who found harm with chemicals, all while vigorously defending the industry and not always disclosing its ties to it.
The Post and Journal Sentinel coverage came at a time of growing awareness of BPA’s dangers to children. Eleven states would later ban the chemical from baby bottles; the FDA banned it from sippy cups and bottles in 2012. But new research is finding that many of BPA’s replacements pose similar risks.
Last year, Trasande addressed this scientific disinformation campaign in an article calling on scientists to speak up more forcefully when policymakers do not act on data concluding that chemicals and pesticides pose risks to kids. He highlighted one example in which a scientist who was aligned with industry dismissed evidence that the pesticide chlorpyrifos causes disease, calling it “pseudoscience.” Trasande added that the funding for groups and scientists that make these counterclaims is not always disclosed.
Science journals are not safe from these antics. Several investigative reports by the Center for Public Integrity and other outlets have noted that corporate-funded scientists have favored two particular journals for publishing studies that promote the safety of chemicals and pesticides: Critical Reviews in Toxicology, and Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. In 2002, 43 scientists signed a letter criticizing frequent undisclosed conflicts of interest and industry ties in Regulatory Toxicology. Its editor, Gio Gori, previously worked as a tobacco consultant who wrote skeptically about the dangers of secondhand smoke; the society that publishes the journal, the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology & Phamacology, has held meetings in the office of a chemical industry lobby law firm.
Public health experts dismiss these publications as unreliable vanity journals. “These two journals exist to manufacture and disseminate scientific doubt,” says David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and the author of “Doubt Is Their Product.” “They provide the appearance of peer review and credibility to ‘product defense’ science — mercenary studies not designed to contribute to the scientific enterprise but to forestall public health and environmental protections and to defeat litigation. Corporations opposing public health or environmental regulations enter the rigged studies and questionable analyses published in these mercenary journals into regulatory proceedings or lawsuits to manufacture scientific uncertainty.”
Then, Michaels says, companies can say, “Look, the studies have conflicting conclusions, so there is too much scientific uncertainty to issue regulations to protect the public or to compensate victims.” For example, this spring, the auto industry cited a study in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology to beat back potential climate change regulations. Citing a study in Regulatory Toxicology, a think tank with strong ties to industry sent a letter in August to the FDA attempting to ensure less-stringent regulations for smokeless tobacco.
Adding to the noise are the free-market think tanks and conservative foundations that fund groups to downplay the dangers of chemicals, and disparage the scientists who study them and the journalists who report on them. Most prominent among these is the American Council on Science and Health, which has received funding from several chemical companies and apparently exists to defend fracking, BPA and pesticides. The group recently unveiled a new website that attacks journalists (including me) and scientists who have noted that industry funding can affect research results, a trend that has been confirmed in a large body of research.
There is little confusion among independent scientists about these chemicals and their effects on humans. But given the manufactured public confusion on these issues, Trasande says he does not expect Congress or federal agencies to address chemical safety. The AAP statement was designed to alert the public and start a national discussion. Eventually, Trasande expects that pressure from consumers for more transparency about the chemicals in our food will force companies to make changes to protect their brands. Until our government acts, or the public pressure becomes overwhelming, every time we walk down the supermarket aisle and wonder which products are safest for our families, we’re on our own.
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