Today it seems like almost all of the documentaries that are produced have an ideological agenda. But was it always this way? The 1996 Frontline documentary “Fooling with Nature” serves as evidence to the contrary. This level-headed approach to the science regarding Bisphenol A (BPA) provides a balanced perspective on the potential health impacts of this chemical, without getting bogged down in outrageous activism.
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals—both naturally-occurring and man-made—that scientists suspect might interfere with the body’s natural hormone system. A small, but vocal, group of scientists has produced extensive research linking certain suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals to an array of health problems, including obesity, learning disabilities, cancer, and sexual development problems.
The Frontline episode features some of the most adamant proponents of the theory that endocrine disrupting chemicals are causing widespread health problems, including then-EPA Asst. Administrator and now-Director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Linda Birnbaum, and some scientists who say the fear of health effects from endocrine disrupters has been vastly overblown.
As the documentary underscores, there are reputable scientists that are looking at the exact same data sets and drawing vastly different conclusions. Instead of debate amongst scientists, however, the discussion has moved into the mainstream media—a shift some call “science by press release.” Complex and nuanced research points get boiled down into simplified soundbites that often make it sound like the science is settled and these chemicals are harmful.
Activist groups such as Greenpeace have taken this to the extreme, running terrifying television commercials warning the public about the danger of chemicals such as chlorine in clothing. It’s a phenomenon scientists like Dr. Steve Safe have called “paparazzi science.”
The documentary tries to strike a balance, underscoring the fact that scientists haven’t proven that chemicals in consumer products and used as pesticides are causing negative health impacts in humans.
Getting the science right
One of the scientists featured prominently in the documentary is Dr. Fredrick vom Saal, one of the most prolific researchers of endocrine disrupting chemicals and a recipient of millions in government funding from NIEHS. Vom Saal’s primary chemical of interest is BPA, used in everything from plastics to resins used to line cans.
In the documentary, vom Saal says, “It’s the chemical they put on your teeth as a sealant, and it is a very potent estrogen. It mimics the hormone that women produce in their ovaries that is a major coordinator of the development of fetuses, whether you’re a human or a mouse.”
Yet vom Saal is dramatically overstating BPA’s ability to mimic estrogen. Other researchers, such as Dr. Richard Sharpe, note: “bisphenol A is an extremely weak estrogen—so weak that even at levels of exposure 4000-fold higher than the maximum exposure of humans in the general population there are no discernible adverse effects.”
The documentary balances the alarmist views of some scientists, who point to limited studies find causation (not correlation) between increased used of specific chemicals and health ailments, with the views of other scientists who use more reasoned data interpretations.
Since the documentary’s release and her move to NIEHS, Birnbaum has shifted her view of endocrine disrupting chemicals, allocating hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into BPA research despite the continued finding that the chemical poses no threat to human health in small doses. Yet, in this documentary, Birnbaum gives sound advice for those who are alarmed about chemical safety:
I think we have to look at the world that our children are living in and realize that they have tremendous access to food, to education, that their lifespan is likely to be greater than ours. So while we may have concerns – and I’m not discounting that there may be real concerns – I don’t think that we should be paralyzed by them or overly worried about what chemicals may be doing to future generations.
“Fooling with Nature” is one of the few documentaries to give viewers a reasoned look at the variety of scientific and public opinion surrounding chemical safety. Perhaps if more media outlets took such an approach, activists like Greenpeace wouldn’t have the ammunition to generate overblown fears about product safety.