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Week of 3.21.08

NOW's Response to Dr. Goldin's Statement

Dr. Rebecca Goldin, who was interviewed as part of the NOW on PBS program "Toxic Toys?", felt she was misrepresented on the show and that certain key points were not included. She shared her perspective on the website.

» Watch the NOW on PBS report "Toxic Toys?"

» Read Dr. Goldin's perspective

NOW's Response

March 31st, 2008

Dear Dr. Goldin,

We are writing in response to your letter regarding the story NOW On PBS reported on March 21st about phthalates, and how California and as many as 11 other states are adopting "the precautionary principle" model when it comes to regulating phthalates in toys and other products for young children.

We stand by our story, in which we examined why the European Union has become the standard bearer for those states and perhaps soon, for the U.S. federal government, should Senator Diane Feinstein's amendment to the Consumer Products Safety Commission Reform Act, pass.

Your critique seems to miss the major point of our program, which is that the European Union, and now some aforementioned states like California, are choosing to make policy decisions before the scientific community reaches complete agreement on, or certainty about, a particular chemical's impact on human health. Far from demonstrating a lack of scientific understanding, as you charge, our program attempted to show how two major world economies can look at the same body of emerging science and come to completely different decisions about when and how to act to protect their respective citizens.

In the program we heard from some consumers in California who believe they should be able to make an informed choice in the marketplace, a choice that would allow them to decide whether they want to buy toys containing phthalates or not. We demonstrated that phthalates are found in some but not all toys and we reported that there are no labeling requirements for toys, and by extension, any other soft plastic products. Testing the soft plastic toys purchased in San Francisco, we reported that in some cases there were concentrations up to 730 times what would be considered the legal limit in the European Union.

In the course of the program we gave significant airtime to your perspective, which holds that there is not enough scientific evidence that phthalates are harmful to humans to warrant government intervention. And we heard from Dr. Shanna Swan who believes there is enough preliminary evidence to at least adopt the precautionary principle.

You complain that we are holding out Dr. Swan's study as a "slam dunk." But at no point in the program do we say Dr. Swan's study is the final word on the potential dangers of phthalates.

Indeed, we give you wide berth to criticize her work:

GOLDIN: So to take a study that did not try to assess whether there were fertility problems. Because the children were still children. That could not have assessed genital defects because there were none in the study. And to take that public and to say phthalates are causing genital defects is scientifically irresponsible in my opinion.

HINOJOSA: But you don't disagree that in Dr. Swan's study that there is a correlation between the exposure of phthalates—in utero to something that happens in boys? Something happens there.

GOLDIN: Something happens, yeah, I don't disagree with that.

HINOJOSA: What you're saying is we don't know if it's necessarily bad?

GOLDIN: I don't know if it—we don't know if it's necessarily bad, exactly.

In our narration we point out that the boys in Swan's study may grow up to be perfectly normal. And Dr. Swan concedes that point. We also at no point make the case that Dr. Swan's research is the only research being conducted.

Your letter lists facts that you believe we should have reported in our program. Unfortunately, we found that some were not as straightforward as you seem to imply. For instance you point to The National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health, which, you write, has "determined that phthalates pose little risk to humans at current exposure levels." We read the November 2005 panel report of the National Toxicology Program, which updates an earlier report. On page 172, the "Summaries, Conclusions and Critical Data Needs" section states: "The Expert Panel has concern that DEHP exposure can adversely affect reproductive development in infants less than 1 year old because of their greater susceptibility and uncertainties regarding exposure. This conclusion is a refinement of the first Expert Panel's conclusion in distinguishing concern by age group within the infant-toddler category." The report also expresses serious concern about infants under 1 undergoing intensive medical treatments with materials containing certain phthalates.

And though the 2005 National Toxicology panel expressed concern about some of the same methodological points you make about Dr. Swan's research, the panel by no means writes off her work. To the contrary, it says: "This study is useful for the evaluation process." (Pages 52-54) Interestingly, on the very next page, the panel evaluates the study you complain we ignored in our reporting (the Rais-Bahrami study) and calls it "of minimal utility for the evaluation process." (Pages 55-56.)

We point this out not to discredit the Rais-Bahrami study, but to underscore the fact that throughout our reporting process, we did indeed grapple with the subtle and complicated aspects of the science that is emerging around phthalates. You are incorrect when you charge that we ignored "the evidence as a whole rather than one article on the topic." Along with Dr. Swan's study and the Rais Bahrami study, our research documents show that there are many scientists both here and abroad looking at the effect of phthalates on humans. And more to the point, the vast majority of these studies, while not conclusive, have been raising significant questions about the human health effects of phthalates. (Please see that attached human studies list.) [pdf]

When it comes to scientists in the European Union, you are correct that one scientific advisory panel did conclude in 2003 that two types of phthalates seemed to be of little harm to humans. But what you do not mention was that the report was subsequently overridden by the Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment. In your letter you chide us for not telling our viewers that European Policy makers "ignored" their own scientists for "political" reasons. But our research demonstrates that far from ignoring their scientists, the MEPs imposed the "precautionary principle." Their decision to ban, without age limitation, the use of phthalates in toys, was done, as we reported, in the face of scientific uncertainty. To quote the directive: "The precautionary principle should be applied where scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty in order to ensure a high level of protection of health, in particular for children."

We encourage discussion of our stories, as we believe that informed debate leads to better public understanding of the issues. Thank you for writing.

Attachment: Human Studies List [pdf]