Bill Carteaux paced the stage with the intensity of a general about to send troops into bloody battle.
He is at war against mounting momentum to ban bisphenol A, a key ingredient in hard, clear plastic products. Studies have linked BPA to breast cancer, testicular cancer, reproductive deformities and neurological defects.
Carteaux, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, represents manufacturers of thousands of products made with BPA. Sales of that chemical now top $6 billion a year.
For decades, the chemical industry has been able to control the debate on whether BPA is harmful to human health. Now the Food and Drug Administration, which had relied on industry-financed studies to declare the chemical safe, is reconsidering its determination. The decision is expected by Nov. 30.
“We are under attack from all fronts,” Carteaux told the audience at the group’s annual meeting in June.
And with increasing urgency, the industry is pushing back - hard.
The industry has launched an unprecedented public relations blitz that uses many of the same tactics - and people - the tobacco industry used in its decades-long fight against regulation. This time, the industry’s arsenal includes state-of-the-art technology. Their modern-day Trojan horses: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and YouTube.
A four-month investigation by the Journal Sentinel reveals a highly calibrated campaign by plastics makers to fight federal regulation of BPA, downplay its risks and discredit anyone who characterizes the chemical as a health threat. The newspaper examined thousands of pages of Internal Revenue Service reports, disclosure forms and e-mails between government scientists and lobbyists as well as the industry’s own public relations materials.
The documents offer a rare glimpse at the hardball politics of chemical regulation, where judgments about safety are made not necessarily on the merits of science but because of the clout of lobbyists working the system.
In May, the Journal Sentinel reported e-mails obtained from the FDA showed how federal regulators deferred in recent years to chemical industry lobbyists, allowing them effectively to write public policy on the chemical’s safety.
The newly discovered documents show agency scientists have relied on chemical industry lobbyists to help draft public safety standards on BPA for much longer, more than a decade.
Details of meetings between federal regulators and chemical industry lobbyists are found in the archives of the Tobacco Institute, the lobby group of the tobacco industry. A court settlement in 1998 disbanded the institute and opened the records to the public.
Lobbyists for tobacco closely followed the government’s assessment of BPA because of concerns that a ban on the chemical would affect cigarette filters and plastic packaging. The two industries share the same lobby firm, the Weinberg Group.
The Tobacco Institute documents show administrators from the FDA routinely turned to chemical industry scientists to establish the government’s safety level for BPA. Government scientists relied on test results performed by industry scientists without independent confirmation.
A 1997 briefing by lawyers for plastics industry executives confirms how government regulators looked to industry scientists to determine how much BPA was safe in food packing. After discussions with government scientists on their conclusions, Jerome Heckman of the Washington, D.C., law firm Keller and Heckman wrote: “We believe FDA relied heavily on original data supplied by (the association).”
Carteaux, the industry official who spoke at the June convention, declined to be interviewed. But the urgency of his message is clear in the videotape of his presentation to association members.
“We are at the tipping point,” Carteaux said. “Legislation and regulation threaten to fundamentally change our business model.”
At another point, he noted: “We can’t continue to fight back just at the reactive stage when things are emotionally charged. We have to take the offensive and react quicker.”
New public relations materials show how the chemical industry is getting more aggressive about protecting its image as worries about chemicals in plastics mount - often in new and subtle ways.
Chemical makers and plastics industry executives are putting up their own versions of news clips on social media outlets such as YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, Twitter and blogs. Often, they are disguised as neutral, unbiased information and rarely reveal the source.
So what might look to consumers researching BPA on the Internet as independent information are often stories written by chemical industry public relations writers.
Allegiances are not always explained. The most impassioned defense of BPA on the blogs comes from Trevor Butterworth, editor of Statistical Assessment Service, also known as STATS. He regularly combs the Internet for stories about BPA and offers comments without revealing his ties to industry.
Butterworth explained his stealth public relations campaign in a 2006 article in Chemical Week magazine.
“Companies need to develop a public information policy that is proactive in educating the public and tackling the claims of activist groups in real time,” Butterworth said. “Most of the companies are like a deer in the headlights, and traditional PR is useless in dealing with these problems.”
In June, Butterworth authored a 27,000-word review of the media’s coverage of BPA that is featured on plastics industry Web sites.
STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.
Media managers for the plastics industry also monitor the Internet for negative stories about chemicals, including BPA. They post their own version of the stories, significantly downplaying any potential danger and dismissing concerns about BPA safety as “e-rumors.”
For instance, in April 2008, after Canada announced it was declaring BPA a toxin and moving to ban it from baby bottles, chemical makers launched their own Web site, www.factsonplastic.com. It features nine videos, all posted on YouTube and intended to debunk worries about BPA.
One video shows Liz Weiss, a registered dietitian, discussing how to microwave with plastic.
“If it says ‘microwave safe’ or ‘microwavable,’ feel confident that you can use that plastic wrap in the microwave,” she says.
The Journal Sentinel reported last year that 10 products labeled “microwave safe” or marketed for children’s use actually leached the chemical when heated. The label “microwave safe” is not a government designation or a guarantee the product does not contain BPA.
In the video, Weiss smiles into the camera and says of plastic containers: “You can make beautiful vegetables, high in nutrition.”
What’s more, her recipes are featured on a Web site, plasticsinfo.org, sponsored by the American Chemistry Council.
In another video, Sharon Kneiss, vice president of the organization’s plastics division, criticizes a report that had aired on NBC-TV’s “Today” show, advising parents to discontinue using certain plastic food containers.
“That report clearly confused and frightened the public, and they hurt the integrity of the products,” she says.
Kneiss says the FDA declared the chemical to be safe for all use - but does not mention that this determination is under review or that another government group, the National Toxicology Program, found some concern for infants and fetuses exposed to BPA.
“Parents should be confident in that affirmation and that we are safely using these products,” Kneiss says.
Industry image makers also plan to link to search engines such as Google and Yahoo, so their items will pop up when readers are searching the Internet for information about BPA, public relations materials show.
The group also plans to launch a Web site aimed at helping consumers, particularly young shoppers, find information about plastic products.
“It is a targeted sharpshooter approach as opposed to spray and pay,” Tracy Cullen, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the plastics association, told Plastics News Reports, a trade publication.
$10 million campaign
Carteaux’s group - the Society of the Plastics Industry - has launched a $10 million campaign to sell the benefits of plastic to people ages 18 to 28 who are the likeliest to be buying baby products in the next decade. The association has committed $400,000 to the effort and hopes to raise the rest in the next few years.
This is running in conjunction with efforts by the group’s sister organization, the American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical makers that supply the raw materials.
Notes obtained by the Journal Sentinel of a meeting last May by food packaging association executives and chemical industry lobbyists showed how desperately they are trying to downplay concerns about BPA’s safety.
The newspaper reported they talked about how to find “the holy grail” - a pregnant woman to serve as spokeswoman for the industry. The plan called for the woman to talk about the benefits of BPA, presumably to undermine concerns about the chemical’s damaging effects on fetuses and infants.
Industry executives also discussed scare tactics that they might use to discourage government bans of BPA, such as spreading word of infant formula shortages if the chemical were outlawed in food packaging.
That report led to an ongoing congressional investigation.
In that meeting, lobbyists talked about the importance of “befriending people who are able to manipulate the legislative process.”
The Journal Sentinel also has found numerous examples of the plastics industry lobby exaggerating claims of BPA’s safety and using outdated studies to support their position.
For instance, the industry’s Web site - www.bisphenol-a.org - claims that “potential human exposure to BPA from polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resin food contact applications is minimal and poses no known risk to human health.” That statement is based on a 1983 assessment.
The Web site, which is not labeled as being owned and operated by the chemical lobby group, makes no mention of hundreds of studies conducted since 1983 that linked the chemical to harm. In 2007, the Journal Sentinel reviewed 258 scientific studies of BPA and found that the overwhelming majority determined the chemical is harmful.
The chemical industry also typically overstates safety assessments in statements it sends out.
In early July, industry association lobbyists issued a press release about studies done by the Canadian government claiming that they proved BPA to be safe.
“The ACC applauds new data from Health Canada confirming the safety of BPA in bottled water, baby food and infant formula,” said Steven Hentges, chief lobbyist for the American Chemical Council.
But Hentges failed to distinguish between these findings and earlier studies that found the concern about BPA is in polycarbonate bottles and in liquid formula stored in cans lined with BPA.
“Those are two very different things,” said Philippe Laroche, media relations officer for Health Canada. This study was “not related to polycarbonate, for which we have a proposed ban,” he said.
David Rosner, professor of public health and history at Columbia University, watched Carteaux’s 52-minute June speech and saw striking similarities between the plastics and tobacco industries. Rosner is the author of several books on industry efforts to control government regulation, including “Deceit and Denial: the History of Industrial Pollution.”
“If I hadn’t studied how this industry has operated in the past, I would say I was shocked,” Rosner said. “But this attempt to deflect and distort public opinion is par for the course. They will ultimately do virtually anything to protect their product, even attack the messengers.”
He added: “We’re watching a propaganda campaign in the making.”
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