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Boston Globe, Times, others: How much did FDA shift on BPA?

Over the weekend, the government announced that it would launch a $30 million study of the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, to determine whether it’s safe in food and beverage containers, including baby bottles.

The FDA has also changed its position on BPA–but what exactly has it done? The coverage offers multiple interpretations.

Beth Daley of The Boston Globe paints a relatively soft portrait of the FDA’s action, although she does get baby bottles in the lede:

Acknowledging there is “some concern’’ that a chemical found in baby bottles and infant sipping cups could cause adverse heath effects in children, Food and Drug Administration officials pledged yesterday to study the chemical far more closely but said there was not enough evidence to further regulate it.

Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post wrote a lede with considerably more oomph, saying the FDA”reversed” itself:

The Food and Drug Administration has reversed its position on the safety of Bisphenol A, a chemical found in plastic bottles, soda cans, food containers and thousands of consumer goods, saying it now has concerns about health risks.

Andrew Zajac in The Los Angeles Times wrote that FDA said the chemical “merited further study” but “no immediate restrictions on its use.” And Denise Grady at The New York Times wrote that the FDA “in a shift of position” was “expressing concerns” about bisphenol A, which it had “declared safe in 2008.”

The varying interpretations turn, I suppose, on whether “some concern” should be read as SOME concern, or some CONCERN. In the past, the FDA expressed little or no concern, so you might argue that any expression of concern was a big shift, or even a reversal. The other interpretation would be that the FDA had expressed some concern, but no particular alarm.

I’ll go out on a bit of a limb here, as someone who has written about the possible dangers of BPA in the past, and argue that this is a bit of an under-covered story. Environmental groups have expressed great alarm, and industry groups have tracked them very closely with press releases rebutting every argument. I’m making this claim without looking back over years of coverage; it’s just a feeling I have from being involved in the coverage. It was a little too easy to get a scoop on a new development, which leads me to think that not enough people were competing to cover this.

As a case in point, while the FDA announcement got a lot of coverage, I found much less coverage of a study that came out a few days earlier linking BPA to heart disease. Christine Dell’Amore of National Geographic News was one of those who did cover the study, writing: “In a sampling of U.S. adults, those with the highest levels of BPA in their urine were more than twice as likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than those with the lowest concentrations of BPA.”

Whatever the real significance of the FDA’s action, here was an actual study, and it was in PLoS One, a journal that isn’t difficult to find. I found the release on Eurekalert. I would love to have seen a third paragraph in somebody’s FDA story saying, “The FDA’s announcement comes just a few days after publication of a study linking BPA to heart disease…” and with a detail or two on the study.

Government is funny; there is a Democratic version of the facts, and a Republican version of the facts. And a Limbaugh version, and a Howard Dean version. And so on. Science writers are in possession of what I guess I now have to call actual facts, or real facts. Let’s not let the mouthpieces control the “facts,” when we know better.

This article was originally published on Boston Globe, Times, others: How much did FDA shift on BPA?

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