October is “breast cancer awareness month” thanks to a collaborative campaign arranged by public and private groups united in the mission to fight breast cancer. Their educational efforts can save lives by promoting early detection and healthy lifestyle choices. Yet environmental activists and media are using this campaign as an excuse to scare women about chemicals, and unintentionally, divert their attention from truly useful information, such as the importance of regular breast exams and a healthy diet.
For example, USA Today recently produced a story and video designed to scare women about the chemical bisphenol A, which is used in food packaging and plastics. It cites a meaningless statistical study that makes claims the data don’t support. The study reads: “Our findings suggest that developmental exposure to environmentally relevant levels of BPA during gestation and lactation induces mammary gland neoplasms in the absence of any additional carcinogenic treatment. Thus, BPA may act as a complete mammary gland carcinogen.”
But the reason these authors use the word “suggests” is because the data didn’t actually show anything, although they want you to think they did! In fact, the authors wanted to make an even bolder statement, which they did in an advance publication of the report online prior to the print publication. But the journal forced the authors to revise the study claims after Forbes journalist Trevor Butterworth pointed out that the data did not support any conclusion. You can see Butterworth’s recent article documenting the changes that downgraded the researchers’ claims to nothing more than “suggestive.” Yet the study is still making headlines even though the “findings” are not compelling and they contradict other more robust research on the topic, as Butterworth points out.
There’s a bigger lesson here: Beware of studies about chemical risks that are merely “suggestive.” Basically, when researchers say the data “suggest” something, it means they failed to demonstrate anything. Yet researchers use the term all the time to hype risks and capture headlines. Unfortunately, not only does that scare people, it can divert us from the real issues that affect our health.