Unbalanced Reporting on Flame Retardants

In its four-part series entitled "Playing with Fire," the Chicago Tribune reported on the politics and science of flame retardants -- particularly brominated flame retardants. In Part 3 of its series, with the heading "Distorting Science," the Chicago Tribune story makes the following statements with negative implications regarding Dennis Paustenbach, an apparent industry friendly scientist:

"'Industry loves him,' said Peter Infante, a former senior administrator with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 'They know what answer they are going to get. Nothing is ever harmful.'

For the makers of flame retardants, Paustenbach helped interpret data about whether a widely used retardant posed a risk to children.

In 2002, concerns had been growing about a flame retardant known as deca that was being added to TVs and other electronics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wanted more information about possible health risks to children, and chemical manufacturers volunteered to collect data and present them to an EPA-sponsored panel of industry, government and university researchers.

For help, the chemical-makers hired Exponent Inc., a California-based scientific consulting firm where Paustenbach served as vice president. After analyzing various ways children might be exposed to deca, including inhaling dust and chewing on consumer products, Paustenbach's company wrote a 123-page report concluding the chemical posed little risk ...

Paustenbach and five others went on to write up the report for a peer-reviewed journal, which can lend the results of a study more credibility. Their paper was published in the Journal of Children's Health -- a year-old publication edited by Paustenbach. In an interview, Paustenbach said it was appropriate to publish the report in a journal that he edited."

Thus, the Tribune's story appears to be implying that there may be ethical problems regarding an author of a peer-reviewed scientific article publishing the article in a journal that he/she edits in some capacity. A valid question -- but then why did not the Tribune question who was publishing many of the academic and government sourced studies fueling the flame retardant concerns, in what journals, and what relationships these academic and government authors may have had with the journals in question?

As an example, this Chicago Tribune story includes a number of quotes from, and references to studies by, Heather Stapleton -- currently an Associate Professor at Duke University who conducts research on brominated flame retardants. Stapleton is on the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the same journal in which Stapleton has also published a number of articles regarding flame retardants.

Stapleton is also on the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal Environment International. And, as expected, she has published a recent flame retardant article in this journal.

Is there anything unusual about an editor or member of an editorial board publishing their work in a journal that they edit in some capacity? No. So, why did the Chicago Tribune article see fit to mention this fact regarding Paustenbach's work that was apparently in favor of continued use of these types of flame retardants, but the same newspaper appears to have failed in any way to note similar actions by those publishing articles apparently against the continued use of these types of flame retardants?

Let us continue our analysis. Ruth Alcock is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment International, and she has recently authored an article in her own journal on flame retardants. Robert Letcher is an Advisory Review Editor at Environment International, and he has recently authored an article on flame retardants in this same journal.

We can move on to the journal Chemosphere. Jacob de Boer is an Editor of this journal, and has recently published some articles (link1, link2) on flame retardants in this same journal. Mehran Alaee is on the Editorial Board of Chemosphere, and has also recently published some articles (link1, link2, link3) on flame retardants in this same journal.

Moving back to the journal Environmental Science and Technology, we find Miriam Diamond is an Associate Editor of this journal, and has recently published several articles (see, e.g., link1, link2, link3) on flame retardants in this same journal. Ronald Hites is an Associate Editor of this journal, and has published a large number of flame retardant studies in this same journal over the years, including some representative recent ones.

The analysis could go on, and on, and on, and ... If one wants to get into an analysis of authors who publish their work in journals they edit in some capacity, this is an extremely long string to start pulling on. But the overall point is simple. If the Chicago Tribune saw fit to note Paustenbach's editorial relationship to the journal in which he published some of his work, then in order to avoid clear journalistic bias, the newspaper should also have investigated the publishing histories of all other authors it either directly or indirectly referenced in its story. Isn't this basic journalism?

This Chicago Tribune story also probed extensively into the financial history of the pro-flame retardant lobbyists. What about the money trail for those opposed to halogenated flame retardants? Surely it must exist, and be worthy of coverage? Isn't there money to be made from flame retardants, and wouldn't a potential competitor benefit financially through increased market share by discrediting its competitors? Are there any financial linkages into the academic and/or government sectors? All worthy questions that the Tribune investigation failed to answer.


Dr. Sierra Rayne writes regularly on environment, energy, and national security topics. He can be found on Twitter at @rayne_sierra.