Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
When it comes to testing dishwashers, VCRs, and TVs, Consumer Reports (CR) has established a reputation for fairness and impartiality that has made it one of the most trusted consumer sources in America. Unfortunately, any month’s issue that discusses a subject with an environmentalist angle should be renamed "Consumer Distorts."
The magazine’s latest such excursion, labeled a "baby alert" in the current issue, was the subject of what was essentially a 15 minute infomercial on ABC News’s 20/20. The message was clear: 95% of all baby bottles sold are made of polycarbonate plastic and if you are using one, rip it right out of your child’s mouth and toss it just as far as your pitching arm allows.
Leaching of material from the plastic into liquid in the bottles "could affect intelligence," in babies, and "could affect" behavior, learning ability, and reproductive ability, according to Edward Groth, a CR scientist.
That sounds awfully serious unless you happen to know what neither CR nor 20/20 bothered to report: This "could" is based essentially on a single study, conducted chiefly by a single researcher (Frederick vom Saal, of the University of Missouri-Columbia), involving a whopping total of 14 male mice.
"If plastic bottles are outlawed, only outlaws will have plastic bottles."
Still about to pitch that baby bottle? What if you heard that vom Saal’s mice didn’t show the symptoms described in the CR and 20/20, reports but rather their chief difference from the comparison mice was slightly larger prostate glands and a slightly decreased sperm count?
Nobody can say what meaning this might have for mice, much less for men. What if you heard that several studies have been unable to replicate either this finding or to discover any other abnormalities in the test animals including some vom Saal never looked for? One such involved 100 mice at four doses, rather than just seven at two doses. At the study’s conclusion the mice were so healthy they were ready to compete with rats at the next Rodent Olympics.
What if you heard that vom Saal’s theory turns basic toxicology on its head in that he suggests lower doses appear to be more harmful than higher ones? (Though considering vom Saal isn’t a toxicologist, this isn’t particularly surprising). What if you heard that vom Saal was virulently anti-industry long before conducting his mouse study?
Finally, what if you heard that just last month vom Saal was scheduled to appear at the Toxicology Forum in Washington, D.C. to defend his finding before scientists that, unlike him, are experts in the field? Yet he mysteriously failed to show, an act the Forum’s president, Philippe Shubik, called "rather incomprehensible."
When I questioned vom Saal about this at a press conference on May 12, 1999 he explained his absence by saying he was informed shortly before the conference that, "The ground rules of this meeting is that you could only talk about unpublished information," thus he would not be allowed to discuss his published studies. That’s as absurd as it sounds, and indeed both published and unpublished work were discussed.
In short, we have one impeachable man and 14 dead mice as the basis for spooking millions of parents, banishing mountains of baby bottles, and destroying an industry. But there’s much more at stake here than baby bottles, as the editors at CR, 20/20, and other environmentalists are well aware.
The same chemical in polycarbonate that vom Saal’s tiny party of rodents allegedly maligned, called bisphenol A, is found in everything from plastic food and beverage containers to food can linings. About two billion pounds are produced in this country years, an industry worth about $1.7 billion.
That comes out to over $121 million per mouse.
"Just let ’em try to take my baby bottle away!"
Further, we’re not just talking lost money and lost jobs. Sure, it’s easy enough for parents to throw away plastic bottles and replace them with "safe" glass ones. Of course, to know the least thing about babies is to know they list among their favorite sports throwing their bottles down and they aren’t too particular if the surface is carpet or concrete.
Consider also the fear factor in parents who can’t switch to a new material because their babies who drank from polycarbonate bottles are now in their teens or are young adults. It’s too late for them to do anything but worry themselves sick and to blame themselves for any developmental problem, physical or mental, their kids have.
Assuredly some are doing that right now. Assuredly they wouldn’t if somebody had bothered to tell them about Frederick vom Saal and his mouse squad. Nor would any parents have chucked their baby bottles. Instead, they’d have pitched the current issue of Consumer Reports.