Opinion-Policy Nexus

The other day I was rock climbing and someone dropped their glass water bottle, sending thousands of tiny, sharp shards of glass all over the floor, where dozens of people, some young children, were walking around in bare feet. Six years ago, this never would have happened because most rock climbers would have been using hard, reliable, plastic water bottles that were hardened with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Thanks to an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and some scientists, BPA has become a modern day equivalent of DDT. Because of public pressure, retailers of products made with BPA, including baby bottles and outdoor bottles, withdrew their products and replaced them with a wide variety of bottles made from different products, including glass bottles, which, as noted above, have a tendency to break. In essence, people were convinced to act on one risk (the risk supposedly posed by exposure to BPA) and unwittingly opened themselves up to other risks (broken glass). But in all the discussion about the supposed risk presented by BPA, the issue was never framed this way. Sadly, discussions about threats to welfare (risks) usually are not.

This is one conclusion that emerged from my paper published online recently in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that examines the politics and science of Canada's regulation of BPA. Canada was the first country in the world to regulate it, announcing in April 2008 that it was "toxic" according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The paper argues that this decision was not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, it produces documentary evidence that scientific experts in Health Canada felt that "at this stage, any risk from BPA is hypothetical". Their own risk assessment described the evidence for the existence of some threat to human welfare as "limited" (see p. 71). Instead, the decision was a product of a widespread suspicion of chemicals that is the product of both cognitive and cultural forces.

In addition, it was the product of very strong lobbying by Environmental Defence and other environmental groups and a great deal of questionable reporting by the Globe and Mail's Martin Mittelstaedt which emphasized what flimsy evidence there is that suggests there is some threat to health, ignoring the much more robust evidence that indicates the opposite. But what Mittelstaedt and ED ignored, and what Health Canada knew but downplayed, was that all of the evidence that had been produced up to that point (and to this day) was based on flimsy methodologies or showed effects manifesting themselves at levels of exposure far higher than what Canadians are exposed to.

This is an important case for several reasons. First, the fear and suspicion of chemicals is widespread. The Sudbury father who recently sought a vaccine exemption for his daughter is on the record saying: "I don’t believe chemicals should be dumped into our system." In research I'm doing on the politics of municipal water fluoridation, one of the common charges opponents make is that it is not fluoride that is added to the water, but rather hydrofluorosilicic acid. This compound dissolves into fluoride, but fluoridation opponents don't know this or don't care. By focussing on a term that caters to chemophobia, anti-fluoridation opponents can actually overturn fluoridation, an important public health initiative that can effectively and equitably improve dental health for a wide segment of the Canadian population. By acting on flimsy evidence, the federal government legitimates excessive fears of chemicals.

Second, journalists play a key role in amplifying risks. Thanks to Google Trends data, I was able to correlate the frequency of news stories about BPA in Canada with internet search interest about the same topic over several years. You can see the results here.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA. Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

In nearly every week where there was a spike in newspaper interest in BPA, there was a corresponding spike in public interest in BPA. I'm pretty confident in saying that newspaper coverage (particularly Martin Mittelstaedt's) coverage sent a lot of worried and curious Canadians to the internet to find out more, making the issue more salient in public opinion. A good example of Mittelstaedt's reporting can be seen here where he describes BPA as "inherently toxic". While this certainly sounds frightening, the fact is that BPA was only ever found "inherently toxic" to aquatic organisms, not for humans. Moreover -- and my paper spells this out -- this criteria was not enough to trigger a full screening assessment alone; at the early stage in the regulatory process, this finding was irrelevant. But Mittelstaedt and others made no mention of this because they didn't want that fact to get in the way of a good scare story.

And lastly, this case shows the need for a better discourse about risks in politics and public policy. One thing that needs to be better understood is that invoking the existence of some threat to welfare (a risk) is only ever a partial equation. Other elements of that equation include what the quality of the evidence is that establishes existence of that risk. In the case of BPA, it was very poor. Yet another part of that equation asks whether public welfare is actually improved by doing anything about it and if so, what that should be. In this case, some environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Martin Mittelstaedt and Health Canada have valiantly protected us from risks based on some pretty flimsy evidence. And in doing so, they've helped take hard, reliable, unbreakable plastic bottles off the market place. And now, rock climbers, outdoor activists and parents are using glass baby bottles protected from a hypothetical risk, and now exposed to the risks posed by broken glass.

Clearly this is not the most tragic case of misperception of risks. But in other domains - such as how we try to deal with supposed threats from terrorists or try to minimize the risks from pesticides - failing to appreciate how dealing with one risk can expose us to others could make us all much worse off.

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Monday, March 23, 2015 - 09:18