Journalists Have a Responsibility to Cover Dow Fairly, And We Intend to Hold Them Accountable

Last week, Environmental Health News (EHN) covered a flawed study of the flame retardants used in Dow’s BLUEDGE™ technology, known as Polymeric FR or PolyFR. Unbelievably, EHN failed to contact Dow for our perspective prior to publication. We quickly issued a detailed response both to EHN and other organizations that contacted us about the story. You can read that here. The EHN piece has since been updated, but the changes were wholly insufficient, and the piece continues to include the unsupported claim that PolyFR is a “regrettable substitution.”

But the question remains how it was ever allowed to run in the first place.

When asked to account for the failure to reach out to Dow prior to publication, EHN cited an “embargo” on the study. But this fails to justify their actions for a number of reasons.

First, a self-proclaimed embargo from the author or publisher of a study shouldn’t blind journalists to their duty to report fairly. If the topic of a given study was on some neutral or broad phenomena, an embargo may have served a useful purpose. But in this case, the study focused on a single material manufactured by a single company, and no embargo justifies leaving the target of such an attack out of the story all together. In fact, honoring the embargo improperly allowed an uncontested disparagement. That approach violates a core principle at the top of every journalism standards rulebook — that the subject of any article or criticism must be given a full and fair opportunity to respond.

Second, the embargo that EHN’s editors claim prevented them from reaching out to Dow prior to publication did not prevent them from seeking the perspective of outside activists like the Green Policy Institute, who were allowed to provide a disparaging quote that, too, was uncontested in the initial story. Specifically, the claim that PolyFR “breaks down into things that look just like old flame retardants” is completely unsupported, and clearly biased. On what basis does EHN and its editors justify violating this purported embargo for an advocacy organization with no direct tie to the study, while holding the subject of the study’s contentious conclusions, Dow, to an entirely different standard? How did Green Policy Institute become involved with the story, and at whose behest? When were they reached for comment? EHN doesn’t say.

Third, no valid journalistic end would have been harmed by allowing a reasonable time between the lifting of the embargo and publication in order to get Dow’s perspective. The public would have been no worse off or less well-informed, and no opportunity, except perhaps for a few extra page clicks, would have been missed. On the contrary, a real harm was done both to Dow and to EHN’s readers by pushing publication in the absence of Dow’s response, as other organizations picked up on the flawed and incomplete reporting before it was updated.

And fourth, even absent the foregoing, EHN should have known that Dow is aware of the research by the University of Duisburg-Essen and Christoph Koch—and actively provided comments to its authors while the study was underway—and could have asked Dow for comment on that research generally without violating any “embargo”.

These serious flaws may have been mitigated had EHN challenged the researchers on their methodology and underlying assumptions, or had they made an effort to critically assess the validity of the underlying study. EHN failed to do either.

But the study itself is highly dubious, for many reasons, some of them highly technical. Among the most important:

  • The study evaluates the degradation of Polymeric FR as a stand-alone chemical, and not within a BLUEDGE™ insulation application as it would exist in the real world. Although the authors note this approach “might have an impact on the results observed”, they nevertheless speculate without support that the material within the foam may degrade to forms that “might pose a toxic potential for the environment”.

  • The study suggests the substances observed as degradation products have potential to be harmful, even though lead author Christoph Koch published a separate study just last month in Science of the Total Environment that concluded “rather limited” acute toxicity.

  • Koch’s results actually support Dow’s position that the degradation is slow to occur, and that the products that are formed are not toxic to aquatic organisms, and will biodegrade via known biological mechanisms.

  • The study claims that a “not much is known regarding [the] compounds” it identifies as resulting from the degredation of PolyFR, and that “information concerning their effects” is “largely missing.”  In fact, we provided input that these compounds have known low hazard, and that they are not persistent in the environment, with known biological degradation mechanisms that were understood in as far back as the 1990s.  We also noted that these substances would be classified as non-hazardous if they were actual commercial products.  These points were not reflected in the final version of the paper.

  • The study ignores countervailing information provided by Dow to its authors on these and other critical points, and makes no mention of the fact that this information was provided at all.

Most glaringly of all, EHN fails to tell readers the fact that the study’s lead author, Christoph Koch, does work for Deutsche Rockwool, a direct market competitor of Dow’s in the insulation space. This presents a clear conflict of interest that responsible reporting is duty-bound to disclose.

While Koch’s work for Rockwool is mentioned in a footnote inside the study itself, there is no conflict of interest statement making clear that Rockwool is indirectly financing a study of a competitor’s product. 

In fact, the study’s authors claim “no competing financial interest.” 

This would appear to contravene the Ethical Guidelines ACS Publications (of which Environmental Science & Technology is a part), which state:

“Conflict of Interest Disclosure. During manuscript submission, ACS journal authors are required to disclose the nature of any competing and/or relevant financial interest. A statement describing any financial conflicts of interest or lack thereof is published with each manuscript…The statement should describe all potential sources of bias, including affiliations, funding sources, and financial or management relationships, that may constitute conflicts of interest.”

EHN further compounded the study authors’ glaring omission by reporting uncritically on their conclusions without doing even the most basic due diligence.

The result, whether by error or intention, is highly slanted reporting that is indistinguishable from outright advocacy. Some may have hoped that we wouldn’t be able to confront it or set the record straight quickly enough to make a difference — but they are mistaken. We intend to challenge this in every venue where it appears.