Behind the Scenes: The Lefty PR Group That Stokes Consumer Fear of BPA

This is the third part of a BMI report related to BPA, a chemical commonly found in plastics.


The science against BPA isn’t very convincing, yet the left-wing onslaught from environmental groups, activist scientists and the media has convinced many consumers that soup cans, soda bottles and plastic storage containers are going to make them sick.

In the case of BPA, perception and reality are far different, but false perceptions can still cost businesses millions -- or put them out of business altogether. The infamous Alar scare cost apple farmers $100 million according to a 1989 Associated Press report. Even growers who weren’t using Alar were devastated. By March 31, 2012, the FDA will announce a decision on the use of BPA in food and beverage packaging.

As in the case of Alar, such perceptions have even prompted government agencies to regulate or ban chemicals that served a useful purpose. That could happen again at the end of March, the deadline for the Food and Drug Administration to respond to the left-wing group NRDC’s petition to ban bisphenol A from food and drink packaging. Some companies, including Campbell’s soup, have already announced a BPA phase-out as soon as alternatives can be used.

Like many left-wing groups, NRDC “experts” are often quoted in the media and are not always labeled as liberals. A March 23, 2012, Washington Post story about green jobs merely called NRDC an “advocacy group.” Another Post story from February gave no indication of the eco-regulatory agenda of NRDC.

The kinds of attacks used against BPA aren’t new. NRDC was the same eco-group that created one of the most famous modern public health scares: the 1980s apple scare over the chemical Alar. They were helped by prominent progressive PR shop, Fenton Communications. NRDC claimed Alar would cause cancer, especially in children. But the studies they relied on were rodent studies (not human studies) and had other flaws.

According to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found the active ingredient of Alar to be a weak carcinogen, but so weak that the EPA couldn’t use it for a risk assessment. Other studies of by Alar's manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Company, Inc. (conducted within EPA guidelines). “No carcinogenicity was found,” ACSH said.

But bowing to pressure from the NRDC, the EPA ordered more tests of a breakdown product of Alar’s active ingredient, according to ACSH. Those animal tests were “analogous to drinking daily, for life, 19,000 quarts of juice made from Alar-treated apples,” Kenneth Smith and Jack Raso wrote for ACSH. Despite that, the EPA ordered that Alar be phased out.

As they often do with health scares, the media reacted to NRDC’s concern over Alar with hype. CBS’s “60 Minutes” exclusive (offered by Fenton Communications on behalf of its client NRDC) even “broadcast an illustration of a skull and crossbones over an apple in its report on Alar,” according to The New York Times.

Since that time, many have condemned the Alar Scare including the American Medical Association (AMA) and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop who said, “[I] care deeply about the health of children, and if Alar ever posed a health hazard, I would have said so then and would say so now. But the truth is that Alar never did pose a health hazard.”

ACSH has catalogued some of these remarks including the February 1992 AMA statement that read, in part: "The Alar scare of three years ago shows what can happen when science is taken out of context or the risks of a product are blown out of proportion. When used in the approved, regulated fashion, as it was, Alar does not pose a risk to the public's health." Even The New York Times wrote in 1991 that, “Many scientists, while acknowledging studies that indicate Alar could cause cancer, have since concluded that because the risk is so low and because fewer than 15 percent of apples were sprayed with Alar, the Alar crisis was greatly overblown.”

NRDC succeeded, against the science, to get Alar banned. A similar battle over BPA has been going on for at least a decade as NRDC, the Breast Cancer Fund and a host of other left-wing groups (Fenton Communications included) have sought to regulate or eliminate the chemical.

The media have often helped those groups in the fight, as the Business and Media Institute has reported. In just the past two years, the three broadcast networks’ and five major newspapers’ reports mentioning bisphenol A have hyped it as a threat 97 percent of the time despite “scant” evidence that the chemical should be avoided. On March 31, it will be clear whether the left-wing group, its allies from Fenton Communications, to other anti-chemical eco-groups and the news media gets its way again.

BPA, Fenton’s new Alar?

Fenton Communications isn’t a household name, except for people working in public relations, left-wing environmental groups or national news outlets. Yet, this left-wing publicity group is behind one of the latest targets of the left: BPA. At least one of its clients, BornFree -- a BPA-free baby bottle company, has benefitted from the attacks on BPA. Fenton cites its work for BornFree as a case study in reports on its website.

David Fenton, the founder of Fenton Communications, has a lengthy left-wing resume. After dropping out of high school, he documented the late ‘60s, early ‘70s protests with his camera. According to Capital Research Center, Fenton “helped produce the ‘No Nukes’ concerts of the late 1970s,” and through his own firm created campaigns against Alar, SUVs, the war in Iraq and represented interests including the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan who set up a protest camp outside of the Bush ranch.

Fenton and his PR firm garner plenty of national media attention for their clients, but little for themselves. In the few national news reports mentioning Fenton Communications in recent years, there wasn’t a hint of environmental radicalism or even progressivism in the descriptions. Print outlets were content to label the company “A D.C. public-interest marketing firm,” “A public interest communications shop” and a “public interest public relations firm.”

In each of those descriptions, “public interest” was the term that keeps cropping up. It is a moniker left-wing groups cling to to make it sound like they are doing what is best for people, especially when they are calling for more regulations and less freedom of choice.

According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Fenton was also “a major force in the silicone breast implant scare, serving as the PR firm to the trial lawyers in implant litigation.” Throughout the early 1990s, media hyped the unproven dangers of implants by including dramatic examples, not identifying activists and excluding relevant opinions. Reporters also ravaged implant manufacturer Dow Corning.  In 1992, the FDA banned the implants except in controlled studies so that their safety could be examined. Years later, multiple scientific studies would show no connection between cancer and autoimmune diseases and the implants.

In 2006, the FDA approved silicone breast implants for use again. But the news media were still prejudiced against them. NBC’s Brian Williams said, “Given the history of this product, I think a lot of people are going to have a hard time with the government blessing for this particular product, being a foreign substance being sewn inside the bodies of women.”

In recent years, Fenton has been helping dissuade consumers from using products containing BPA. CEI mentioned this on May 12, 2010, but the Fenton study warning about BPA has since been removed from the Fenton website. But other information is still there. It is clear the group views BPA as a “hormone-disrupting chemical” and claims that it “causes cancer in animals, even at low doses.” (They didn’t point out that some of those animal studies were done by injecting the chemical into cells, rather than having the animals ingest BPA, which is the primary way humans come into contact with it)

One of Fenton’s clients, BornFree, is a BPA-free baby bottle company. Fenton says they wanted to “position” BornFree “as a leading consumer health advocate.” How did Fenton do that? They had them testify about the “dangers of BPA” before a California State Senate committee that was considering a BPA ban. So they had executives testify about science to project the right public image for the company. Fenton managed to get national attention for BornFree by “leveraging” their relationships with reporters, and bragged that the product “was covered in virtually every major national newspaper” and on “Good Morning America.”

Fenton cited not only the company’s increase in sales as the success, but added that “national legislation has been introduced to ban BPA from children’s products.”

The left-wing PR group has a report called “Take a Position: 10 Steps to set Your Organization or Cause Apart.” In it the company gives examples of products and liberal advocacy groups that have done that successfully. On page 10, the anti-chemical group Breast Cancer Fund (which has also campaigned against BPA) is mentioned for creating “a unique area of specialization” among breast cancer groups. It was unclear whether Fenton was directly involved in helping BCF become one of “the most ‘out front’ breast cancer groups focused on identifying and preventing the causes of breast cancer.” In addition to similar goals, BCF and Fenton also share at least one former employee.

Media Hype Poor Science and Help Activists’ Anti-BPA Crusade

Fenton knows how to get its messages out, especially by using the news media.

The PR company is well connected to the media according to Rowan Scarborough who wrote for Human Events back in 2009, that Fenton boasted of its connections on its website saying one of its employees, “has landed clients in mainstream news outlets across the country such as Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and Politico as well as congressional publications such as Roll Call and CongressDaily. She has placed stories in many major media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the San Diego Union-Tribune.”

National news coverage of BPA has been extremely slanted against the chemical. In just the past two years, the broadcast networks and top five national newspapers have continued to label BPA “carcinogenic” and “toxic” and use flawed reports from activist groups to bash it. Just two out of 87 reports focused on research that found BPA wasn’t the huge danger the left claims it is.

On the Feb. 25, 2010, CBS “Early Show” broadcast, Katie Lee crossed the line from hype into outright falsehood when she said of BPA: “And that’s been shown to cause liver disease, heart failure, all sorts of things.”

Anyone listening to the media coverage might be surprised to learn that large and reputable studies done by government agencies have failed to find proof that BPA is dangerous to people at reasonable exposure levels. One of these studies was a “huge” and “scientifically rigorous” study called Ryan et al. in 2009. Richard Sharpe, a leading endocrinologist, of the Queen’s Medical Research Institute (UK) wrote in The Toxicological Sciences journal that the Ryan et al. study “throws cold water” on the BPA controversy “by showing complete absence of effect of a range of bisphenol A exposures ...” According to Sharpe, this study found no estrogenic effects of ingested BPA even when the doses were 4,000 times more than maximum human exposures.

But instead of reporting studies like Ryan et al., the media have relied on left-wing eco-groups and other activists that claim BPA is harmful.

One of those groups, Breast Cancer Fund, has used its name to camouflage its green activism and the media have helped. The Los Angeles Times unchallengingly listed BCF as one of the “top breast cancer charities” back in 2010, despite its focus being entirely on the “environmental” (translation: chemical) causes of breast cancer. BCF supports liberal Rep. Edward Markey’s, D-Mass., bill (introduced in Jan. 2011) to ban BPA in all food and beverage containers.