A new study claims that exposure to phthalates is linked to 107,000 early deaths and nearly $50 billion in lost economic productivity in the United States. Based on the findings, researchers say regulatory action is needed.
News coverage of the study, led by Dr. Leonardo Trasande of New York University, spread like wildfire. Mainstream and social media outlets jumped on the sensational findings — that will likely scare millions of consumers — without clarifying that associations do not prove causation.
Perhaps this was intentional. The media’s penchant for chasing “clicks” and online ad revenue borders on the irresponsible. Even worse are advocacy groups exploiting unvalidated scientific claims of causation of harm to prey on fear and raise funds to advance political agendas and mass tort lawsuits.
We have no reason to doubt the integrity of Dr. Trasande or the NYU research team. To their credit, the researchers have acknowledged that “more research would be needed to provide conclusive proof that the chemicals cause early death, as well as the mechanism for how this happens.”
However, the research team made an enormous leap from discussing the study’s weaknesses to calling for regulatory action before the science is replicated.
This should always be a red flag for those who believe science should lead the way. We wonder if the team could have been influenced by “motivated reasoning” — thinking through a topic with the aim, consciously or unconsciously, of reaching a particular conclusion.
Making sound public health decisions requires transparent and reproducible scientific evidence that properly accounts for risks and hazards, and distinguishes between facts and assumptions. For this reason, more research is needed to see a more accurate picture of the potential hazards of phthalate exposure and to examine the specific role the chemicals play in the body. Anything less would be putting the cart before the horse