National Public Radio examined the science behind the phthalate ban contained in the CPSIA and concluded that “public concern, not science, prompts the plastics ban.” The April 1, 2009, broadcast and accompanying article include an interview with Dr. Marilyn Wind, Deputy Associate Executive Director for Health Sciences at CPSC. Dr. Wind explained to NPR that the CPSC opposed the phthalate ban because “there was not a risk of injury to children.”
After outlining Dr. Wind’s summary of extensive scientific studies, which led both the CPSC and the Food and Drug Administration to conclude the ban was not necessary, NPR reviewed the scientific claims made by politicians with the opposite message. For instance, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) is quoted as saying the ban was needed because phthalates had been “linked to serious reproductive defects.”
This article represents a fine example of the politicization of science. Having read the legislative history, I know that Feinstein and other phthalate ban advocates relied on studies conducted by likeminded scientists. I also know that those studies have been called into question by phthalate manufacturers and other stakeholders interested in using phthalates. Likewise, studies financed by phthalate manufacturers or their associations have been called into question by phthalate ban advocates. And when we have this kind of he-said-she-said debate it looks a whole lot like politics and not like science. Unlike politics, however, scientific experiments can be depoliticized.
I am not a scientist, but I do understand a bit about scientific method. In a debate such as this, we need a disinterested third party to design a method of inquiry based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The significance of the resulting data is open to interpretation, but data should not be in dispute. I believe that the CPSC is currently trying to fill this role, and the tone of NPR’s story supports that conclusion.
I welcome rigorous legislative and public debate about science and health policy, but debate must be anchored in good science. Federal agencies, such as the CPSC, are well-positioned to serve the necessary role of disinterested third party. Remember that most federal agency scientists, such as Dr. Wind, are career hires, not political appointees. Their allegiance does not change with political winds. Legislators, at the very least, should afford staff scientists at least some measure of deference. And if legislators feel that agency staff has a political agenda, they should work to reform the agency, not find a political ally to do their science.