BPA coverage exposes media bias
I t's funny how the news gets reported sometimes.
It’s funny how the news gets reported sometimes.
In mid-August, you may recall, Canadians awoke to screaming headlines about bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical sometimes used in the production of polycarbonate plastic.
“Study finds widespread BPA exposure,” read one headline that was typical of many.
The first sentence of one report said the “vast majority of Canadians” have “detectable levels” of BPA in their urine. It got worse: “Study says children have higher levels of the chemical than their parents or grandparents.”
The study referred to was a Statistics Canada report measuring lead, mercury and BPA bloodstream concentrations among Canadians.
The thing is, the content of the StatsCan study was nowhere near as dramatic as the reports covering it made it seem — i.e., “Innocent Canadian children exposed to deadly chemicals by that sinister conglom-erate known as Big Plastic.” (I paraphrase, but only slightly.) For example, those who bothered reading to the end of the StatsCan study came across the following: “Canadians aged 6 to 79 had a geometric mean concentration of urinary BPA of 1.16 micrograms per litre. This is consis-tent with results from international studies reporting mean or median concentrations of 1 to 3 micrograms per litre.”
Hmmm. That doesn’t sound particularly frightening to me — or to the Chemical Industry Association of Canada, who were admirably quick out of the gate responding to the StatsCan report hysteria. The CIAC reminded Canadians that any chemical can be detected in human fluids and tissues in as little as one part per billion ( “a single drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” as they put it), and that the mere presence of an environmental chemical in a person’s body doesn’t mean said person will suffer any adverse health effects.
The screaming-headlined reports also admitted this, although usually not until the bottom of each story. As one reporter put it, almost grudgingly, “The average level [of BPA] found in the population was 1.16 parts per billion, an exceedingly small amount.” It’s a sure sign, though, of how biased the coverage of BPA has become that a report that offered nothing new is presented as though it heralded a disaster of near-Biblical proportions.
Anyone following the BPA saga with a scintilla of objectivity can’t help but notice that a huge, neon-lit pattern has emerged, of which the StatsCan coverage is only the latest example: Research disputing the notion that BPA is harmful to humans — and there’s plenty of it — is largely ignored by the mainstream news organizations; conclude that BPA is harmful, however, and most journalists will shout themselves hoarse to spread the news.
Why? Well, coming from a liberal arts background myself, I can assure you that too many of my fellow scholars — many of whom drift naturally into jouralism — have an instinctive dislike of big business, and of the dreaded Big Oil in particular, of which plastics is viewed as an inevitably sinister byproduct.
And these journalists are having an effect, at least in Canada: So far, our country stands alone in having banned BPA from baby bottles, without any concrete scientific evidence to support such a move.
Predictably, activists seized on the StatsCan numbers from mid-August, arguing they showed that Canada must immediately move to ban BPA from products like food tins.
But Health Canada said exactly the opposite a few short months ago in a study of canned food and BPA: “Health Canada’s Food Directorate has concluded that the current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and infants.”
Again, it’s funny: That report didn’t get much coverage.