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Robert Goldberg: Pseudoscience activists, trial lawyers use media to muddy debates

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If you have been paying any attention to the news over the past few months, you've no doubt heard about Bisphenol A, a chemical found in hundreds of plastic products, including baby bottles and food packaging.

You have also probably heard that BPA might be linked to a variety of negative health effects, which are said to run the gamut from heart disease to cancer to aggressive behavior to low sperm count.

In particular, the Environmental Working Group ominously has identified BPA as an "endocrine disruptor," making the substance sound like the advanced weaponry from a science fiction movie.

Recently, EWG reported that BPA-containing receipts were a threat to consumers. Its researchers tested store receipts in a handful of D.C.-area stores and then, upon finding traces of BPA, announced that these receipts were dangerous to all who dare go grocery shopping.

This "study" did not even examine if BPA was absorbed into the body. That didn't stop EWG, or the media, from warning people around the world to stop taking receipts.

Outlets ranging from Los Angeles Times to ABC to NPR's "Science Friday" have dutifully taken stories that went viral on the Web and portrayed BPA as the biological equivalent of global warming.

The EWG is behind many of these scares, including the widely discredited assertion that vaccines cause autism. At the same time, careful review of risks and benefits by scientists and regulatory agencies is smeared as cover-ups bought and paid for by corporations.

Case in point: A recent scientific review of BPA by the European Food Safety Authority concluded there was no reason to ban BPA. The decision was highly anticipated by the scientific and regulatory community, and has large implications for European health and environmental policy. Yet, the EFSA decision received no coverage from the mainstream American media.

Tabloid medicine is intended to make the precautionary principle -- the belief that in the absence of scientific consensus that there is harm, the burden of proof that there is no harm falls on those taking the action -- the so-called benchmark for consumer decisions, regulatory policy and litigation.

BPA makes plastic more heat-resistant and transparent, and less prone to shatter. It has made medical devices safer, reduced the incidence of food-borne diseases such as botulism, and cuts down the amount of energy needed to ship thousands of products.

Yet these benefits are rarely discussed. Rather, we only know BPA for endocrine disruption.

Tabloid medicine proponents like EWG never explain why: If we need to eliminate BPA because it harms the endocrine system, shouldn't we eliminate all endocrine disruptors?

For instance, EWG urges parents to give up beef because, as an endocrine disruptor, it reduces sperm count and impairs fetal development. EWG then encourages pregnant women to eat soy products and feed their infants soy products instead of beef.

Yet, soy, along with whole grains, pumpkin, zucchini, carrots, garlic and cabbage, have endocrine disruptors called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens at low levels and prolonged exposure have been associated with reduced fertility, smaller penis size, reduced sexual activity and reduced brain formation.

Focusing on BPA -- which has been used for over 50 years and has been certified as safe by no fewer than 10 global regulatory agencies -- allows EWG to claim it uncovered the hidden dangers left in every product by the greedy indifference of corporations.

In the short term, this narrative meshes with the instincts of the media and gives EWG the ability to demonstrate to supporters -- anti-business foundations and the trial bar -- that it is effective.

Over time, EWG wants to replace science-based evaluation of risks and benefits essential to our well-being with the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle means more lawsuits, less individual choice and less progress.

While the BPA crisis is fiction, the threat tabloid medicine poses to our public health and society is real.

Robert Goldberg is vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and author of the forthcoming book "Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science For Fear and Profit"