'60 Minutes' Gets it Wrong on Phthalates

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CBS' 60 Minutes may be known for its investigative news, but on Sunday it failed to thoroughly examine the claims against phthalates, a group of chemicals that help to make plastic flexible. Sunday's segment perpetuates baseless allegations against these everyday chemicals, creating unfounded health scares in homes nationwide.

While the report gave ample attention to the hypothetical theories and flawed studies, the report lacked a proper review of the overwhelming scientific evidence that proves these compounds are not harmful when used as intended. The real story is that these products do not pose a risk of harm for anyone not for adults, not for children. Various phthalates have been thoroughly studied by multiple governments and independent, accredited evaluators, including the European Union, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Toxicology Program's Center for Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction. ACSH convened its own Blue Ribbon Panel chaired by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to review the scientific literature on phthalate exposure. The panel's findings confirmed that phthalates were safe for its intended use.

Contrary to what 60 Minutes reported, hypospadias (a defect of the urethra in baby boys) is not increasing in frequency. A study published in Pediatrics in 2009 concluded that "there was no statistical change in hypospadias rates in New York State from 1992 to 2005"

This kind of biased reporting is not a novelty for 60 Minutes. In 1989, 60 Minutes aired a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council claiming that Alar, a growth regulator used on apples, was linked with cancer in children. The segment even showed footage of children in cancer wards to underscore their false claims.

In the widely viewed television report, Ed Bradley declared apples to be a "deadly poison" and claimed children were especially at risk "because they drink so much apple juice." ACSH's own Dr. Elizabeth Whelan was interviewed for the segment; however, most of her fact-based interview was left on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, the Alar scare proved to be half-baked and scientific organizations including the World Health Organization said the Alar scare was without scientific merit. But the financial fallout was disastrous for apple farmers, and American parents were needlessly frightened from serving apples to their children.

Given its detachment from reality, the new campaign against plastic chemicals bears shocking resemblance to the Alar scare from 21 years ago. The baseless attacks on phthalates present in the 60 Minutes segment were based largely on research from the biostatistician Dr. Shanna Swan. Her claims that phthalates "demasculanize" boys are far-fetched at best. During the 60 Minutes interview, she concedes that she cannot conclude that phthalates are harmful. Swan's research has never shown evidence that phthalates cause developmental or reproductive effects. Her latest study claims that phthalate exposure could cause preschool aged boys to play with more girly toys. To even suggest such an association is absurd. Swan has been pushing out her questionable studies on phthalates for years. While her research may be popular with the media, she lacks credibility among the scientific community. Her studies have never been reproduced and her conclusions have been called into question.

An even more stringent ban of phthalates which yield lifesaving benefits by creating flexible medical devices would require equally useful substitutes. But there are none that have been so extensively tested. The misinformation and fear created by this program will serve only to distract parents from the real risks facing their children. It's time we demand better from our journalists and request fewer scare stories and more hard facts.