Does the chemical used to make non-stick frying pans endanger the lives of the workers who make it? Facing a daily assault of über-opinionated stories on the web, the public has developed low expectations of journalists. But we continue to have high standards for science reporters wrestling with information that can impact our health and safety. Unfortunately, such lofty expectations aren't always met.
Case in point is the recent coverage of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), aka C8 (because it has eight carbon molecules). It's used in the manufacture of water-resistant clothing, protective finishes on carpets and slick surfaces such as DuPont's Teflon. It's also the subject of an innovative public health research study--the centerpiece of a unique agreement by both industry and alleged victims.
Ten years ago, DuPont was sued for allegedly polluting local waterways and exposing workers at its Parkersburg, West Virginia plant to dangerous levels of the chemical. By 2005, with the case stalled, the court engineered a pioneering settlement--the establishment of an independent C8 Science Panel--to assess whether the chemical had caused serious harm. Two weeks ago, the three scientists on the panel released an interim report, consisting of summaries of three studies: on liver function, worker mortality and pregnancy outcomes. Four regional journalists posted stories purporting to summarize the latest studies:
* Panel: High death rates tied to heavy C8 exposure (Associated Press, Vicki Smith)
* C8 panel says it has found cancer death rise at DuPont (Charleston Gazette, Ken Ward, Jr.)
* C8 panel releases three reports (Parkersburg News, Pamela Brust)
* C8 Science Panel Finds No link Between Chemical, Diseases (State Journal, Andrea Lannom)
The headlines, which often signal a reporter's editorial perspective, spanned from 'there's nothing to be worried about' to the polar opposite 'the sky is falling'. The provocatively titled Associated Press report, Panel: High death rates tied to heavy C8 exposure, was the most influential of the four articles, as it was picked up by more than 800 news and information websites around the world. The remarkable editorial range of the headlines suggests that ideological agendas rather than a commitment to balanced reporting on complex science are in play. But by which reporters and news organizations? What's the story behind the stories?
In 2001, some residents and workers in Parkersburg stirred by a campaign launched by the Environmental Working Group and partnering with a national team of tort lawyers filed a class action against DuPont, accusing it of damaging the environment and human health. The suit appeared to have the makings of a billion dollar case: "contaminated" waterways and anecdotal stories of cancer suffering workers and their children.
In most cases involving chemical discharges, corporations mount tough defenses, initially. Over time, whether responsible or not, they make cost-benefit assessments and usually settle as legal expenses and verdict risks rise. But DuPont balked at paying catastrophic personal injury and punitive damages without hard evidence that people were actually injured.
That presented a challenge to the plaintiffs. There are some studies showing harm to laboratory animals exposed to C8 at levels 100 to 10,000 times higher than what humans encounter, but the evidence on humans ranges is flimsy. C8 did show up at elevated levels in urine and blood samples of residents around the DuPont plant. But as the C8 panel confirmed, that's not necessarily an indicator of a health danger. Our kidneys efficiently metabolize almost all substances that turn up in screens.
In 2003, the EPA sued DuPont for not reporting blood sampling--an administrative issue for which the company paid a $10.5 million fine. But in a blow to the complainants, the agency reiterated its belief that human health risks from C8 are minimal or unproven and declined to list it is a dangerous substance. The case slogged along until the court engineered a settlement that may provide a template for addressing future toxic disputes. In 2005, DuPont agreed to remove C8 from local waterways. It paid $50 million to residents, and $20 million more to cover education projects (attorneys' fees took an additional chunk of the settlement).
"Selective reporting wounds public trust in science and journalism--and undermines the cleansing impact of independent research when key public health issues are in play."
Considering what DuPont might have had to pay if it had been found guilty, the settlement was modest. But it included a twist. To address the uncertainty over C8's health impacts, it stipulated that DuPont would fund, but not oversee, a longitudinal health study to determine if the C8 it manufactured caused "probable" harm. Both sides helped choose the panel of three scientists. Depending upon what the panel decides, DuPont could be on the hook for up to $235 in health monitoring costs--or pay nothing. The C8 panel's conclusory report is due next summer.
The public health community loved the settlement. It could set numerous precedents, including jump-starting studies independent of direct industry oversight and holding a company accountable if actual harm has indeed occured. Equally as important, this blueprint might help ensure that businesses won't be so easily stampeded into outrageous settlements based on fear mongering by advocacy groups and tort lawyers. For this experiment to succeed, journalists would have to play their part, by reporting fairly on the panel's findings. That's proving to be the biggest challenge.
Death by hyperbole
So how did the journalists cover the release of the C8 panel's interim findings? The local Parkersburg paper ran a bland, limply headlined story, but Pamela Brust's report was objective and by far the most comprehensive of the four articles. She liberally quoted from the panel and eschewed a strong editorial narrative, which, it can be argued is the best approach when faced with such a controversy.
The State Journal's headline stating that "no links" were found between C8 and diseases was flat out wrong. Reporter Andrea Lannom said she didn't write it. (I contacted all four reporters, but only Lannom and the Gazette's Ken Ward, Jr., agreed to discuss their reporting). In fairness to Lannom, the article was balanced. She dispassionately outlined the panel's central findings. Demonstrating sophistication in writing science stories, she noted the instances in which the scientists found fewer health concerns than expected--so-called null findings.
In contrast to the steady reporting by Lannom and Brust, the articles by Ward and Smith were troubling. The Gazette and the AP headlines were over the top, signaling to the reader the crude sentiment: C8 kills. But that's not what the panel concluded in its three two page summaries.
The summary report on C8's impact on the liver functions was highly anticipated because it was designed to address a question posed earlier in the research: what's the relationship between increased levels of C8 and three markers, bilirubin, ALT and GGT. Analyzing data from 47,000 adults, the panel found no direct link between increased levels of C8 and bilirubin or GGT. Ward and the AP ignored these unexpected but scientifically significant findings.
Rather, they both led with the only sensational finding, an association, described by the panel as "small," between increased levels of C8 in blood and ALT. The scientists also stressed the study's structural "limitation," which it wrote "makes it impossible to know whether PFOA can cause changes in liver markers." For Ward and the AP's Smith, the scare seemed more important than the context.
Ward and the AP also trumpeted the association between C8 and preeclampsia in the study of 12,000 local pregnancies. Once again, the panel noted this link was "small"--an informative qualification explicitly noted by all the reporters except Ward. Smith at the AP also pointedly wrote that preeclampsia could "endanger the health of pregnant woman and their fetuses by triggering high blood pressure, seizure, stroke and organ failure." That appears to be a deliberately inflammatory characterization. Preeclampsia is a common form of hypertension that is rarely serious and resolves itself with birth.
What is the most important finding in this pregnancy study? It's not sexy but it's science, and Brust and Lannom nailed it: the null evidence. Counter to expectations and contradicting prior less robust studies, the panel discovered "no associations" to the most feared outcomes: miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, term low birth rate and birth defects. The AP at least mentioned those findings. In contrast, Ward ignored them, oddly insisting that "the panelists have not filed a report in which they actually either find or rule out a 'probable link'" between birth defects and C8 exposure--yet Ward knows the final report is not due until next year and based on the "no association" finding is highly unlikely to find probable links.
One is struck by the similarity in the headlines and leads in the stories by the AP and the Charleston Gazette. Author of the blog "Sustained Outrage," the Gazette reporter comes across as a fierce idealist, determined to rout the hypocrites and bad guys. Ward told me he believes the AP had based its headline and story on his blog post that he posted on July 19: "C8 Panel finds more problems in new studies."
Ward acknowledged the similarity. "It's not their story, it's my story," he contended in a conversation and email exchange he pointedly noted was on the record. "The AP just took the key points from what I had written and someone rewrote it." He later emailed me: "[B]ased on the fact that the [AP] story didn't have a byline, I believed that it was a story that AP 'picked up' from our initial report."
Ward's blog piece had the virtue of linking to the panel's actual study and news release. But it also downplayed key findings, particularly the null results. He told me he was irked by the panel report because it did not find the serious health problems that he had expected. "Why would the Science Panel downplay associations with adverse health effects in its [prior] report to the community … ," he wrote. "It's difficult to put this particular study into the context of the many previous C8 studies that have noted associations with adverse health effects at levels that the general public is exposed to, compared to high-dose exposures for workers." Prior studies were more preliminary and based on less robust data.
Ward appears to embrace a conspiracy theory. He's resistant to the likelihood that the C8 scientists are actually doing their job, independently, letting the ideological chips fall where they may. He and the AP's Smith seemed determined to "correct" the public record on the C8 panel's behalf, presenting a narrative they believe the scientists should have written, not what they actually found. The result was two misleading pieces, including the AP's C8 Godzilla, unleashed into cyberspace.
Ideologically infected reporting sets a dangerous precedent in science journalism. Ward and Smith have a right, even a responsibility, to draw on their experiences to discuss science findings in context. That's what good journalists do. But that does not justify leaving out facts that conflict with a predetermined narrative. Yes, a killer does lurk in our midst. Selective reporting wounds public trust in science and journalism--and undermines the cleansing impact of independent research when key public health issues are in play.
Jon Entine is a visiting fellow at AEI.