Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

May 23, 2008

BILL MOYERS: If it weren't for the work of a muckraking journalist more than a century ago, the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, might never have existed. In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a fierce graphic account of the meatpacking industry's filth, corruption and exploitation. His vivid, stomach-churning depiction fueled a demand for more stringent inspections and the creation of the FDA to keep food, medicine and other products fit for human consumption.

Last week, FDA officials and other government witnesses were called to a Senate Committee hearing on the safety of Bisphenol A, or BPA that's a chemical used in a variety of plastic products from baby sippy cups to eyeglasses. When Senator Schumer and five of his colleagues introduced legislation calling for a ban on BPA in all kids' products, they used information uncovered by the investigative reporting of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. How the paper's reporters got that story is the subject of this report from our colleagues at Exposé, narrated by Sylvia Chase.

NARRATOR: Plastic. It's in almost everything. Food is stored in it. People drink from it…work with it…play with it. Less well known is that there is a chemical contained in many plastics that is also found in 93 % of us.

It's called "Bisphenol A."

FREDERICK VOM SAAL: Bisphenol A is actually the chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic. It's the hard, clear plastic used in baby bottles, and it also is the lining of all metal cans made in the United States - beer cans, soda cans, food cans. And this chemical leaches out of all of these products into any kind of food or beverages that come in contact with it.

NARRATOR: Bisphenol A, BPA, is what is known as an endocrine disruptor. Studies have shown that in lab animals, it causes breast and testicular cancer, diabetes and hyperactivity. Its effects on humans are not entirely known. The manufacturers of BPA, and their lobbyists, say it is safe. U.S. regulators agree. One team of investigative journalists decided to ask…why? Susanne Rust is a science reporter with the MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL.

SUZANNE RUST: When I was a graduate student, I read this article in the New Yorker. The theory was that there were chemicals in the environment that were somehow messing with the reproductive system. And then I got into journalism, and suddenly these science stories kept coming across my desk. The managing editor of my paper was really excited about one of the stories I had written. It was on this chemical, Bisphenol A, and he was like, "You interested in this?" I said, "Yeah."

GEORGE STANLEY: I went to Susanne and said, "We know breast, prostate and other forms of these cancers related to the endocrine system are on the rise in humans. We know this stuff causes it in lab animals. We've got to look into this."

MARK KATCHES: Well, I think the central question that we came up with from the get go was, "Why isn't anything being done to address the issue?" So we set our sites on the regulatory efforts, what the EPA had been doing. It turns out, not much.

NARRATOR: Endocrine disruptors were first identified as the cause of wildlife abnormalities in the early 90s. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, though, repeatedly reassured the public that BPA, at least, was safe.

The agencies cited studies done in the 1980s. But prompted by an outcry from advocacy groups, President Bill Clinton signed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. That same year, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended.

The combined legislation promised a chemical screening program of endocrine disruptors to be overseen by the EPA. The goal was to determine whether or not they were dangerous to human beings.

1998 - the EPA, headed by Carol Browner, sets a deadline to fast track the testing of 15,000 chemicals suspected as endocrine disruptors….

1999 - the EPA misses the deadline. The Natural Resources Defense Council sues the agency to enforce screening. 2001 - a new administration takes office; Christine Todd Whitman becomes head of the EPA.

2003 - two more suits are brought against the EPA, one by a coalition of environmentalists and advocacy groups…the other by the attorneys general of four states. The suits attempt to force the agency into compliance with the food quality protection act….

2007 - 11 years after the laws were passed…the EPA had yet to screen its first chemical.

Mark Katches assigned two members of what the paper calls its "watchdog team" to join Susanne Rust in exploring why: Cary Spivak…and Meg Kissinger.

MEG KISSINGER: You can go as, you know, walk into any grocery store or go to any makeup counter, and you know, you'll find plenty of products that contain chemicals that are suspected, and that's the big word, you know, they're suspected of health concerns. And the mainstream media just hasn't paid that much attention to it.

NARRATOR: The Journal Sentinel began to give some attention to the Environmental Protection Agency in June of 2007.

CARY SPIVAK: At first, they were very cooperative, but when we said, "Look, that Congress passed a law saying you're supposed to be screening these chemicals, and you keep pointing out that you're working on it, but now it's 2000 - at the time 2007 - you have yet to screen a chemical." And they realized that we were really pushing them and demanding answers. They got much more difficult to deal with.

NARRATOR: Stephen Johnson is the head of the EPA. The paper would report he declined repeated requests for an interview.

MARK KATCHES: And we're the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We're not The Washington Post or The New York Times. So when you start calling officials from the EPA, you're not going to get the same kind of attention that, that those newspapers would get. So we had to be really persistent.

CARY SPIVAK: There was a period of time where they just said, "We've answered all your questions." We said, "We don't care if you think you answered all our questions." We just kept going. And even on basic things they were very difficult to deal with.

NARRATOR: The reporters eventually learned that the EPA, though it hadn't tested a single one of the 15,000 chemicals promised, had already spent some $80 million on the endocrine disruptor program.

GEORGE STANLEY: And here's tens of millions of dollars, our tax dollars being spent and not a single chemical has ever been tested, to this day. So, the more they dug, the more they found.

NARRATOR: He team also learned that only in 2008 did the agency plan to screen its first chemicals- just 73 of them, and not including BPA…and they wouldn't even be finished with that until 2010.

CARY SPIVAK: That took literally weeks to get answers from them to give us the date of 2010.

NARRATOR: Elaine Francis, the national program director of the agency's endocrine disruptors research program, told the paper:

"Clearly, we would have liked to have been a lot further along. But science tends to move at its own pace." NARRATOR: But the pace of science was far from the only issue. The reporters wanted to know: just what was the science saying? The journalists found two camps, each with its own view of the science of Bisphenol A. One includes Dr. Frederick Vom Saal.

FREDERICK VOM SAAL: In our test system with human breast cancer cells, what we found with Bisphenol A was very different than what happens with a natural hormone produced in your ovaries.

NARRATOR: Vom Saal is a biologist at the University of Missouri. He has studied Bisphenol A for more than a decade. In 1997, a team of researchers led by Vom Saal published a peer-reviewed study showing that when BPA was introduced to human breast cancer cells, it penetrated the cells and made them grow rapidly.

FREDERICK VOM SAAL: And as a result of that, we got interested that maybe this chemical was a lot more potent than anybody had previously thought. And so we did a study where we administered it to mice, and found that at a dose 25,000 times below what anybody had ever tested, we caused damage to the entire developing male reproductive system.

NARRATOR: Chemical companies who make or have made Bisphenol A say that people have little or nothing to fear from what are known as endocrine disruptors.

MEG KISSINGER: The chemical companies' basic answer was, "There's no known direct effect that these chemicals are harming anybody."

NARRATOR: The paper heard the same from the industry's powerful trade and lobbying association, the American Chemistry Council. The ACC's Marty Durbin said: "Science supports our side…."

An industry consultant and former EPA regulator, James Lamb, agreed, saying, "I'm very comfortable with my kids and grandkids using these products…because i believe the industry has done the studies that need to be done and that they're interpreting them properly."

In defense of the safety of Bisphenol A, the companies and the ACC cited studies they funded themselves, some paid for by the ACC, which has an annual 75 million dollar budget.

SUZANNE RUST: They say the reason they get these, these results is that their studies are better than any of the academic studies, any of the government studies. They can use more animals; they have better controls in their laboratory.

NARRATOR: But one EPA biologist, L. Earl Gray, Jr., charged the industry with flooding the EPA with studies. David Rosner, professor of history and public health at Columbia University, explained why, telling the paper chemical makers have "… learned that if you play on the uncertainty of danger, you're going to be able to stop regulatory action…"

CARY SPIVAK: What you have, is you have these studies will come out, and they have to weigh that against the academic studies or other studies that are questioning it. And if nothing else, the more you give the EPA additional studies, the more time it's eating up. The more time it's eating up, the more you're selling your product. You've won.

NARRATOR: The ACC's Marty Durbin denied that industry tries to stall the EPA's work. The paper posted this interview with him on its website.

DURBIN AUDIO: "If it was our interest to delay things around here, we'd just sit on our hands and see whether or not EPA gets any funding. But we actually, year after year, go up to the Congress using our resources and lobby to have essential funding to the EPA for these particular research programs. So, again I think our record, our record speaks for itself. We've been fully supportive of moving this process along."

NARRATOR: Again and again, the reporters heard two different stories. One example: they found a statement on an ACC-sponsored website. It said that a person would have to ingest over 500 pounds of canned food every day to be at risk from BPA found in the containers.

Other scientists told the reporters that even at very low doses, BPA and similar chemicals can affect lab animals…the concern is that they might harm human beings, too.

SUZANNE RUST: It surprised me too how much rancor there was about this chemical. I mean, you would talk to some scientists, and you know, they would tell you that the sky was falling. I mean, we talked to others, and they would tell you that it was fine, and then in the same sort of breath they would cut the first scientist down personally. I mean, it was just kind of amazing. I felt like I'd walked into sort of a geeky chemistry war zone.

NARRATOR: After three months of reporting, Rust, Kissinger and Spivak pulled together the information they had culled about the debate over endocrine disruptors.

MEG KISSINGER: And I remember we had a couple of stories sketched out, and we were pretty happy with them, and it was really basically saying, "There's all these chemicals out there, the government's not testing them as they promised they would. A lot of other countries are much more diligent about this." And then here's kind of a lot of the infighting. So we turned these stories in, and we're all excited, and kind of like, "Oh, oh okay, well, that's a wrap. " And not at all. We were called into Mark Katches' office, and basically got our fannies handed to us on a platter. And he just said, you know, "You're not there, yet." So, we were crushed.

NARRATOR: The story was at an impasse. The editors wanted more work. More investigation. More examination of the science.

MARK KATCHES: We realized that the story would have a lot more authority if we went back and looked at all of the studies that had been done, and really tried to conclusively show, is this a problem, or is it not?

NARRATOR: Before she had become a journalist, Susanne Rust had been a graduate student in Biological Anthropology. Now the paper would call on her experience with scientific methodology.

SUZANNE RUST: I'm not intimidated by scientific studies, right, I'm not afraid to read a methods section. I'm not afraid to read results section. I had enough through background in endocrinology, where I was fairly familiar with the terms they were using.

BECKY LANG: So Mark was like, "Why we don't just do our own analysis?" And so he turned to Susanne and said, "Do you think you could do this analysis?" Yeah, she thought she could.

NARRATOR: To begin her research, Rust headed back to school…to the UW Madison library where she had done her graduate work.

SUZANNE RUST: I searched for Bisphenol A, looking for those criteria which I had initially set out for myself, which were live laboratory animals with spines. Where were the authors, what institutes did they work for, who funded the study, what the author's conclusions about the chemical were, how many animals they used to come up with these conclusions…

NARRATOR: Rust also turned to another public source of medical and scientific studies of Bisphenol A, done by both industry and academic scientists.

SUZANNE RUST: I went to PubMed, which is a database online that sort of puts together all medical and scientific studies, and I put together a huge database with all of this information.

NARRATOR: In all, Rust evaluated 258 studies done over two decades involving lab animals with spines, the type scientists consider most relevant to human beings.

SUZANNE RUST: Right away, you could see that 80% of these studies all found that this chemical caused harm.

NARRATOR: More than half the studies, 168 of them, evaluated Bisphenol A at low doses. The vast majority of those - 132 of the 168 - showed harm to lab animals. And, Rust would report, "nearly three-fourths of the studies that found the chemical had no harmful effects were funded by industry." Rust's overall conclusion: an overwhelming majority of the studies found BPA to be harmful in lab animals - causing breast and testicular cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity, obesity, low sperm counts, miscarriage and other reproductive failures. Studies paid for by the chemical industry were much less likely to find damaging effects or disease.

MARK KATCHES: That's where this story took on a whole different dynamic. Because you were able to show, conclusively, through that analysis of all those studies, that hundreds of researchers across the world had found problems with Bisphenol A. And yet, nobody had done anything, and only a few studies had found that it was safe. And most of those studies were funded by the chemical industry themselves. And, and that's when you knew you had something really, really special to tell to readers.

NARRATOR: All of the studies Rust had evaluated were in the public domain, as available to government regulators as they were to a reporter in Milwaukee. As the reporters were working on their story, they knew the government was continuing to look into Bisphenol A. They would report on one panel funded in part by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It consisted of experts who directly studied the chemical. That panel found in 2007 - quote - "great cause for concern" about BPA.

Meanwhile, the National Toxicology Program, the NTP, was in the process of coming up with its own brief on Bisphenol A.

Part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the NTP evaluates chemicals and other agents of public health concern. In 2007, the NTP convened a panel composed of scientists who didn't directly study BPA, but would evaluate the work of those who did.

Among the panel's conclusions: While for pregnant women, fetuses and children there is some concern about neural and behavioral effects…there is minimal concern for… …prostate effects… …potential accelerated puberty… …there is negligible concern for birth defects and malformation.

For adults, the concern was essentially negligible. In light of her own findings, Susanne Rust wondered how the panel had arrived at those conclusions.

SUZANNE RUST: We pulled out every single study looked at in their review of Bisphenol A studies. And so we just wrote down what the study was, who funded it, was it government, industry? And then, more specific, what government agency funded it, what industry funded it, what kind of animal did they look at, what was the strain, what were the doses used?

NARRATOR: Among the paper's findings: Some of the studies the NTP panel considered were chosen by a consultant with links to firms that made Bisphenol A. The panel rejected academic studies that found BPA harmful, citing inadequate methods, but accepted industry-funded studies using the same methods…to conclude the chemical does not pose risks. It also accepted two studies finding no harm funded by former BPA-maker General Electric. They were done some 30 years ago. Neither was peer reviewed.

MEG KISSINGER: I try not to be too cynical, but I don't trust that. I would rather have an independent entity testing the stuff to know, versus the guy that's making it.

NARRATOR: And the panel didn't accept any studies that found BPA harmful at low doses. Why? The paper reported the panel's chairman, Robert Chapin, said that once the panel weeded out studies it believed had been done poorly, no studies remained that showed effects from low doses.

Chapin is a toxicologist who has worked in both government and industry. He defended the panel's work, saying that it had accepted studies that followed good lab practices and were backed with strong data, regardless of where they originated. He told the paper, "We didn't flippin' care who does the study."

In November 2007, the reporters rolled out a two-part series entitled "Chemical Fallout."

Among its conclusions: the government's contention that BPA is safe is based on outdated, incomplete government studies and research heavily funded by the chemical industry.

CARY SPIVAK: And we said, "Why this is important to you. Why you should care about what's in the containers holding your food or other products. And that this is all over the place and that there are legitimate scientific questions over the safety."

GEORGE STANLEY: We saw immediate reaction in Milwaukee in the market place. As soon as mothers read this, they stopped buying baby bottles that had this plastic. And they had to go order a bunch of baby bottles made of glass, and BPA-free plastic.

MARK KATCHES: We have not gotten a single demand for retraction, no clarification request from the chemical industry. They've had nothing that they could come back to us on.

NARRATOR: That doesn't mean the industry has stopped defending Bisphenol A. In answer to a question in an online chat the paper sponsored, ACC spokesperson Stephen Hentges wrote:

"It is not correct that only industry studies support the safety of products made from Bisphenol A…government and scientific bodies with no stake in the matter have impartially reviewed all of the scientific evidence to reach their conclusions. The recent NTP panel evaluation is a good example."

CARY SPIVAK: A lot of these plastic products, people like. It makes life more convenient. The battles are going to become more intense as time goes on. You're having more studies come out raising questions about it.

GEORGE STANLEY: We still don't have the answers to a lot of the questions. And we'll be continuing the investigation.

MEG KISSINGER: This is Meg Kissinger calling with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel…

BILL MOYERS: On April 15th, the National Toxicology Program, the NTP, going beyond its own panel's preliminary conclusions, issued a brief, it stated, in part: "…the possibility that Bisphenol A may alter human development cannot be dismissed."

THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL reported that this was the first time a federal agency has acknowledged that BPA is potentially dangerous to humans.

Meanwhile, Canada's government has announced its intention to ban the sale of plastic baby bottles containing BPA and last Thursday, the California State Senate voted to forbid the use of BPA in childcare products.

Moyers Podcasts -- Sign Up for podcasts and feeds.
Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ