When activist organizations spread misinformation about vinyl products, we set the record straight. Here’s their latest distortion:
When activist organizations spread misinformation about vinyl products, we set the record straight. Here’s their latest distortion:
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen several outlets post misleading or otherwise false claims about vinyl products. So we decided to round them up and debunk each one.
BobVila.com recently claimed that plasticizers used in vinyl flooring can be dangerous. The truth is that phthalates have been safely used for decades. Even the strictly regulated State of California has researched and now issued “safe use determinations” for plasticizers in vinyl flooring and vinyl carpet tiles employing a variety of phthalates. Vinyl flooring is safe, durable, attractive and cost-effective. That’s why homeowners and builders choose it over other more expensive products.
They also claimed that PVC shower curtains can be harmful to human health. In fact, PVC is perfectly safe when used in shower curtains. BobVila.com engages in sensational, fear-mongering language with no evidence to support their claims. PVC is an inert material and is not considered a carcinogen by any authoritative body.
Business Insider recently claimed that PVC baby bibs can contain lead. They don’t. U.S.-made PVC bibs have never contained lead, and importers discontinued using lead in these products over a decade ago.
MORE: What Makes a Good Study?
The Independent recently promoted sensationalist claims about phthalates used to make rigid vinyl flexible. Phthalates have been safely used for more than 50 years and are some of the most tested substances in the world. Rigorous risk assessments by multiple government agencies in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia have concluded that many phthalates present a low-risk for their current intended uses.
In a recent article, National Geographic reporter Sarah Gibbens relies on a series of unfounded claims about the health and environmental impacts of PVC to criticize plastic wrap products like Saran™ Wrap. Worse, the article confuses readers by referring to compounds interchangeably while falsely implying that products like Saran™ Wrap contain chemicals that have been absent for decades. Here are the facts:
Saran™ Wrap is not made with polyvinylidene chloride or vinyl chloride in any form. Saran™ Wrap does not contain chloride. It is made from polyethylene -- and has been for more than 15 years in the U.S. market. In fact, Ms. Gibbens notes that Saran™ Wrap transitioned away from polyvinylidene chloride years ago, but later contradicts herself by erroneously claiming that it still contains as much as 13% vinyl chloride. If the reporter can’t get her facts straight on even this most basic issue, how can readers trust any of her claims?
There is no health risk to “wrapping [your] food in a plastic made with chloride.” Virtually all food contains chloride in far higher quantities than could ever be replicated by contact with PVC wrap. Sodium chloride, or table salt, is one of the most common ingredients in the average diet. It is used as a preservative, a flavoring aide, and in the curing process. The kind of sensationalist language used by Ms. Gibbens is overblown and not based on fact.
The FDA does not regulate the use of PVC in food packaging in the way the author describes. Ms. Gibbens claims the FDA regulates PVC food packaging, yet the source she cites is an FDA guidance document – not a regulation – for calculating the average amount of a person’s diet that comes into contact with certain materials. The guidance document makes no claims about safety. If Ms. Gibbens is referring to a different “regulation,” she should produce it for her readers.
PVC does not release dioxins in landfills. The author is misrepresenting information from the National Institutes of Health (which she incorrectly attributes to the World Health Organization). As we’ve explained before, dioxins are a byproduct of nearly every material when burned in an accidental fire. And PVC is no different from any other material in this regard. Ms. Gibbens should take better care to accurately represent the science.
DEHA plasticizers have been used for years with no harmful health effects. The author claims the “effects [of DEHA] on human health are unclear.” Yet she disregards the findings of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which completed a toxicity review on DEHA and found that it has been thoroughly studied over five decades -- and any health concerns are unproven or lack human relevance.
This piece is a prime example of journalistic malpractice (which is becoming a pattern for National Geographic). As explained above, the piece gets it wrong on the facts – big and small – and stokes baseless panic among readers about products that are perfectly safe and have been in use for decades. As long as media outlets continue to promote this kind of misinformation, we will continue to do their homework for them -- and hold them accountable.
National Geographic recently published a story containing misleading and irresponsible claims about vinyl products and phthalates. The reporter disregarded her journalistic responsibility to report the facts and chose to feature a number of sensationalist allegations that have no scientific credibility. Here’s what she got wrong:
A recent Greenpeace report ranking retailers on their policies regarding the use of plastics makes a number of inaccurate and misleading references to PVC (polyvinyl chloride). We’ll correct them here:
“Retailers should prioritize eliminating the most problematic and unnecessary plastics that are harmful to human health; that regularly enter the environment; that are not recyclable, or often end up in landfills or incinerators despite recyclability claims; and that have existing alternatives. Problematic and unnecessary plastics include, but are not limited to, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) [...]”
PVC is not harmful to human health;
Nearly 70 percent of the PVC resin produced in the U.S. goes into durable applications in use for more than 25 years;
According to the EPA, only 0.8 percent of all landfilled material is PVC;
In many applications, there are no proven or viable alternatives to PVC.
PVC has been safely used in thousands of commercial and consumer products for over half a century. There is no scientific evidence showing PVC to be “harmful to human health” when used for its intended purpose. In fact, PVC provides enormous human benefits by replacing glass and other materials that can shatter or cause potential harm. It also offers better sanitary alternatives in applications such as food packaging.
More vinyl is recycled in the U.S. and Canada every year than exists in all of the landfills in both countries. Since 2014, there has been a 40 percent increase in post-consumer vinyl recycling. Even more impressive, of all the plastics in landfills, vinyl makes up less than 3 percent -- and only 0.8 percent of all landfilled material is PVC. That’s because vinyl products are built to last, as the vast majority of PVC that’s ever been produced is still in service today (PVC pipe can last more than 100 years).
We will always push ourselves to do more. That’s why we just announced a new industry-wide sustainability initiative called Vantage Vinyl with the goal of further improving the sustainability of vinyl products.
Greenpeace’s claims against PVC are nothing new -- the group has been ideologically opposed to PVC for decades, evidenced by its long track record of spreading disinformation about our industry. Those who spend the time to learn the facts are well aware that Greenpeace’s claims about PVC have little credibility.
As long as groups like Greenpeace perpetuate inaccurate narratives about PVC in the public discourse, we’ll continue to hold them accountable by setting the record straight.
We’ve all seen news segments and click-bait headlines touting a “new scientific study” containing alarming health claims that make us question if we should avoid certain products or change our daily behaviors. (We’ve touched on this topic before). Some of these reports are grounded in sound science and are worthy of our time – the American Cancer Society’s recent recommendation lowering the suggested age for colonoscopy screenings from 50 to 45 is one example. But in today’s report-first / clarify-later (or never) news environment, many studies that are utterly worthless gain national attention – because the views they generate are simply too tempting for news organizations to fact check. And when news outlets blindly cover these “junk” studies without determining if they have any redeeming scientific qualities, they do a great disservice to the American public.
Nearly 50% of all studies the news media report turn out to be wrong. And when a more robust study on the same topic reaches a different conclusion, the facts rarely receive the same level of exposure as the initial faulty coverage. That gives readers and viewers little reason to question the legitimacy of bad studies, which in turn incites baseless public fear and leads many to make unnecessary changes to the way they lead their lives.
The characteristics of a credible study aren’t complicated: They must be rigorous, thorough, and replicable. But many studies today fall well short of those standards and make observational claims with small sample sizes where no reliable scientific conclusions can possibly be drawn.
Statistically significant and clinically important results exhibit important, meaningful differences between study subject groups. If a study does not have a large enough sample size, it could fail to detect an important difference between subject groups. If a study has enough participants, even the most trivial differences between groups might indicate a statistical trend, but the data doesn’t necessarily mean these differences are clinically important or meaningful to normal people. The best practice is not solely about selecting a certain sample size – it’s the extent that the researcher goes to eliminate doubt and to build trust in the results by employing the best methods of study design.
Trustworthy studies (1) rely on epidemiological research, assuming the sample sizes are sufficient and follow the study subject group practices noted above (2) use meta-analysis (3) follow a peer-review process or (4) apply a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard. In public health, epidemiologists are taught to look at the probability value (p-value) to determine if the observed differences between subject group outcomes (i.e. ill and not ill) are true differences, or if the observed outcomes are simply a result of chance. But many academic researchers don’t take the time to use rigid epidemiological methods, instead making far-reaching conclusions based on limited evidence or small numbers of people. Some even engage in data manipulation to achieve dubious statistical outcomes (this practice is called p-hacking, you can read more about it here). According to the NIH, a best practice for all researchers would be to explain why the claimed relationship may indeed be real, and not a rare fluke or misuse of data analysis methods. For example, demonstrating why results agree with other studies in different human populations would further clarify statistical value. Clinical researchers are also encouraged to consider other relevant measures because of the severe limitations on patient sampling and hypothesis testing.
Peer-review is one of the most important processes in scientific research. In the best case, peer-review strengthens quality control on studies before they are released to the public. For that reason, trustworthy scientific journals require all submissions to be peer-reviewed. But not all peer-reviews are equally rigorous. A good peer-review should be critical and performed by qualified researchers who do not share affiliations or ideological biases with the author of the study being reviewed (you can read more about what makes a good peer-review from the American Chemical Society here). Unfortunately, researchers often fail to use objective peer-reviewers and opt for those who are already predisposed to support their conclusions.
Vinyl material is often the target of this kind of shoddy science and reporting. Activists, agenda-driven researchers, and some journalists often promote poorly designed and executed studies that malign vinyl. Because vinyl products and manufacturing processes are complex and highly technical, most readers aren’t able to sort fact from fiction in these studies. Here are a few recent examples:
New York Times on ‘chemicals in your mac and cheese.’ In 2017, the New York Times ran a story based on an observational study that purported to identify toxic chemicals in mac and cheese from vinyl containers. Just a few problems: the study doesn’t actually say anything about the effects of those chemicals, it just assumes that they’re inherently toxic, which isn’t true. Second, the study invents a new standard for exposure which contradicts the scientifically accepted standard. The reporter didn’t note either of these facts even though they were provided to her before publication. You can read more here: NYT’s Rabin Compromises Journalistic Integrity In “Click-bait” Clown Story On Phthalates
ABC News promotes a flawed study on phthalates and language delays. In 2018, an ABC affiliate in Duluth, MN ran a segment about a study that claimed exposure to vinyl products could cause language delays in children. The study in question was an observational study with a minuscule sample size of only about 1,200 people (a small sample for this type of study), upon which it based a far-fetched cause-and-effect relationship. Additionally, the study relied on self-reported questionnaires which are highly unscientific. The reporter failed to provide any of this important context for viewers; in fact, she didn’t even identify the study so that viewers could verify her report. More about this report here: Correcting The Record On Vinyl And Phthalates
Environmental Health News article on phthalates and motor skills. Most recently, Environmental Health News published an article about a study on phthalate exposure and vinyl material. EHN starts off with the assertion that “[k]ids exposed to phthalates prenatally and as 3-year-olds have decreased motor skills later in their childhood.” They don’t acknowledge until the second-to-last paragraph that the study doesn’t actually prove that. And once again, the study observed only 209 kids; a sample size far too low to draw such overbroad conclusions.
When reporters allow sensational findings of flawed studies to drive their decision-making in what they relay to the public, they spread confusion and promote inaccurate information that can have real-world consequences. One only has to look as far as the child vaccination issue to understand how widely-reported junk science can lead people to make poor decisions that can impact public health and safety. For years, observational studies claiming a link between the MMR (measles) vaccine and autism dominated the headlines, leading many parents to avoid immunizing their children. As a result, measles outbreaks are now on the rise. But, landmark research on the MMR vaccine which was recently completed that included 657,461 children studied over 20 years in a randomized control trial (the most rigorous standard in study design) found no link between the vaccine and autism. And as expected, the attention this study received paled in comparison to the misleading reports from the past decade.
Media responsibility matters. And when journalists reflexively publish click-bait stories based on studies they know have no scientific credibility, they willfully deceive readers and viewers. It doesn’t take much to ascertain whether a particular research report passes the red face test.
It just requires the reporters who cover them to care.
Dr. Oz – like all journalist physicians – has a duty to act as a filter and evaluate the credibility of the studies he covers before promoting them to a national audience. And when certain studies fall well short of even the most rudimentary scientific standards, he has a responsibility to his viewers to skip covering them to avoid inciting unnecessary public hysteria.
But he failed that test this week when he devoted more than seven minutes on his national show to an obscure German study on vinyl pool toys, the findings of which even he and the guests on his show agreed were inconclusive.
Dr. Oz clarified in the segment that parents shouldn’t be alarmed by the study’s uncorroborated assertions. But the time and attention he dedicated to this relatively unknown German study did exactly that in the minds of many of his viewers. His show even featured alternatives to vinyl pool toys, giving viewers a false reason to believe some of the study’s findings may indeed be worthy of concern.
Are we surprised? The British Medical Journal determined that over 50% of the recommendations on Dr. Oz show were either flat wrong or based on no scientific evidence whatsoever. And he maintained that dubious batting average by irresponsibly airing this segment featuring a slew of baseless claims about the safety of vinyl pool toys and PVC products, despite our best efforts to enlighten him of the facts in advance.
PVC’s safety has been proven time and time again by countless studies and decades of real-world use. It’s one of the most widely researched materials in the world. It’s manufacturing complies with some of the strictest regulations of any material produced in the United States. And its safe use has been verified over and over by U.S. government agencies tasked with protecting the health and safety of the American public.
But Dr. Oz opted to incite unnecessary fear about vinyl. He promoted an obscure German study that made a number of unsubstantiated and irresponsible claims about vinyl. This isolated, unreplicated study uses flawed methodology to make sweeping claims about an entire category of vinyl pool toys based on a review of only four product samples. And it asserts that odor emissions detected from those products – at any level – can indicate toxicity to humans, which just isn’t true. Any reputable scientist wouldn’t give these inconclusive results the time of day, let alone promote it to millions of people -- or encourage people to change their daily lives -- because of it. Yet that’s exactly what Dr. Oz did.
We told Dr. Oz prior to his segment that no credible scientific findings could be drawn from the German study -- but he went ahead with his segment anyway. We sent him a lengthy response highlighting the many reasons why the German study falls short of any definitive scientific conclusions. We pointed out that the study relies on data gathered using only four products—an insufficient sample size to justify the claims it makes. We also noted that two of the samples were from unidentified origins, and one was sourced from China. This is important since PVC pool toys sold in the United States are required to follow strict production regulations that other countries may not observe. And we clarified that the authors of the study themselves noted that their findings were inconclusive and would need additional research to prove. In the two years since the study was published, that research has never been done.
Dr. Oz and his guests even noted that the study’s findings were inconclusive - but the show went ahead with the segment anyway.
Mara Schiavocampo, a correspondent for Dr. Oz featured in the pool toy segment, stated:“... we have to keep in mind that this is a very, very small study. They only looked at four toys. Even the researchers of this study said, ‘we need to study it more.’ So the takeaway here is not that these pool toys will make you sick, it’s just that we need to look into this more.”
Toxicologist Tamykah Anthony stated, “I don’t want to alarm a lot of people because the study was kind of small.”
And even Dr. Oz himself said, “Good advice for everybody is don’t be scared of the pool floats...”
Yet Dr. Oz ran this baseless fear-mongering segment anyway, because the opportunity to scare viewers and generate clicks to his website was simply too tempting to pass up.
The chemicals that the study claims are emitted by PVC pool floats aren’t even used in the production of PVC. They are often used in the solvents that adhere ink to the floats, but they are not used in PVC or vinyl material. We pointed this out to him as well before his story went to air, but he ignored this, too. What’s more, Toxicologist Tamykah Anthony claimed that “PVC plastics” are “endocrine disruptors” when there is no credible evidence to support her statement.
Dr. Oz’s decision to push this uncorroborated German study fits with his track record of peddling bad science. As we noted at the outset, a review by the British Medical Journal found that more than half of Oz’s advice wasn’t supported by scientific evidence. His claims have been ridiculed in the Washington Post, New Yorker, and Popular Science, among other outlets. The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics expressed serious concern about Dr. Oz, and physicians at Columbia University told CNN they were “dismayed” when he joined their faculty. He’s even been called before Congress to answer for his promotion of dubious diet supplements.
Some of the segments presented by Dr. Oz are downright laughable. In the past, he’s claimed that eggplants can cure cancer, that numerology holds secrets to health, and that people should eat pasta and broccoli for breakfast. Here’s a supercut of some of his “miraculous” claims from the Washington Post:
So it’s no surprise that he’s promoting a questionable study on vinyl pool toys. Dr. Oz succumbed to click-bait temptation, once again, and put his own self-interest ahead of his viewers. He pushed a flawed scare narrative that will no doubt generate views across his platforms and earn him money from his corporate sponsors, but won’t help the public live healthier lives.
Facts help people. Regardless of how boring they can sometimes be, they matter.
And when personalities like Dr. Oz push fear-mongering over facts, in pursuit of fame and financial success, the public loses.
A recent study from Australia, the findings of which are based on a flawed premise that PVC is a common ocean plastic, has lured certain national media outlets to promote its reckless and inaccurate claim that PVC dangerously affects phytoplankton productivity in our oceans. These allegations are wildly misleading – and the media outlets that cover them do a great disservice by perpetuating unreliable information to unwitting readers and viewers.
Specifically, the study’s authors erroneously make a key assumption on a material that is not commonly found in our oceans. They draw irresponsible conclusions that are impossible to replicate in a real-world ocean environment. And they fail to use a level of scientific rigor that is anything close to the gold standard.
First, the study suggests PVC is a common material in our oceans – and that simply isn’t true. Of all of the plastic found in the world’s waste stream, just 2.8% is PVC according to the United Nations. And, there is no reason to believe that PVC would end up in the ocean at all, since it would be less likely to float on the rivers that carry plastic waste to the ocean in the first place. The study bases its conclusions on the false premise that PVC makes up a large portion of the plastic in our oceans – any such claim is categorically false.
Not only were typical ocean plastics not tested, but only two plastic items were also selected and tested, by the investigators. The authors went to a local shop, bought a flexible PVC mat, carried it in a plastic bag, cut them both into pieces, immersed them into artificially created ocean water, and conducted testing to draw their results. They made a claim about an entire category of materials based on this hyper-selective and narrowly-focused approach, without any consideration for why the sample was selected, and how it would apply to the projected conclusion that an average reader would take away. For these reasons, the study cannot be trusted.
The study falsely suggests that PVC is a major contributor to the destruction of our marine ecology. The results of the study determined that zinc is the primary harmful contaminant identified. While it is used as an additive in some vinyl products, zinc is a far more common element in countless materials and products specifically used in or around our shorelines, including fencing, metal piping, steel ships, and notably, sunscreen. Furthermore, over 35,000 tonnes per year of zinc come from volcanic releases into the environment. Based on the study’s findings, to suggest that PVC could have a major influence on our oceans is wildly irresponsible.
The outlet that published the flawed research did not appear to follow established NIH’s guidelines in assessing the study’s credibility. The publication, Communications Biology, even acknowledges on its website that its mission is to deliver the “rapid dissemination of results” – which stands in direct contradiction to its aspirational claim to be a source of “high quality” research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) specifies the comprehensive review process studies must undergo in order to be deemed credible. Readers are right to question whether Communications Biology followed these guidelines, as any outlet that prioritizes speed-of-delivery of the research they publish is likely to fall well short of the NIH’s high standards.
Readers deserve to know when scientifically sound studies raise legitimate public health and environmental concerns. Society also deserves to have information from reliable sources that collaborate and engage with stakeholders to ensure the highest quality outcomes, and to anticipate future research needs. They don’t deserve to be exposed to unreliable, uncorroborated research that only sparks baseless public fear.