CBS’ 60 Minutes last night aired a report on phthalates, widely used to soften plastics, and the coverage was about what ACSH staffers expected from the news team that brought you the 1989 Alar scare.
“We were very disappointed by the distortion of the science of phthalates,” says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. “The fact that they would even do a segment on chemicals with such a long safety record is shameful fear-mongering, and then they gave an inordinate amount of time to Dr. Shanna Swan, who has made a career of attacking phthalates. They did get a few quotes from American Chemistry Council President Cal Dooley, who said what he had to, but they did not accurately convey the safety and importance of phthalates.”
ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross agrees: “60 Minutes was trying to ride the zeitgeist of anti-chemical hysteria. The reporter’s first words of the segment were about how people are increasingly worried about chemicals in the environment. Of course they are, since we have the EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council and 60 Minutes doing their best to convince everyone that every chemical is dangerous at any level.”
Still, ACSH’s Jeff Stier thinks it could have been a lot worse: “The feedback I saw on Twitter seemed to agree that they had some balance in the reporting. Cal Dooley did his best to defend the science, but he represents the chemical industry, so we would have preferred that 60 Minutes air the interview they did with Dr. Whelan. Instead, they used the less credible industry spokesperson. This is a subtle bias that distorts the public's understanding of the issue.
“They also did a poor job of emphasizing how important and useful phthalates are, which is why they are so widely used, so that people understand that replacing them could have unintended consequences. While it was, overall, shoddy reporting, it’s important to remember that 60 Minutes is not the major news source that they were 21 years ago when they started the Alar scare. People get their news from a variety of sources these days, so they are not causing the harm that they once did.”