A Closer Look at the Coverage on the Koch Polymeric FR Study

When news outlets report on complicated or highly technical matters, especially those involving the findings of scientific research, the public deserves balanced reporting that includes competing viewpoints and, if reporters are doing their jobs properly, a little skepticism if the authors have competing interests.   

But in recent weeks, a biased study about Polymeric FR – the innovative and safe flame retardant used in polystyrene foam insulation, received overtly slanted coverage that failed to give readers all of the facts. We think readers deserved the full story on toxicological degradation, which is why we publicly posted our responses to several articles and the study that generated the interest.

Reporter Scott Gibson at Green Building Advisor did the legwork that other journalists wouldn’t and followed up to press the researchers and the news outlet that tilted the reporting [Researchers Raise Questions About Rigid Foam Flame Retardant; 1/29/19].

Yet even in their own explanations, researcher Christoph Koch and Environmental Health News writer Brian Bienkowski are still being evasive, Here’s how.

We pointed out publicly that Koch is on the payroll of a company called Rockwool which is a direct competitor of ours in the very same product category that Koch studied.  But in his research article, Koch declared that he had “no competing financial interest.” 

Koch tried to explain that to Gibson, saying that “there was no funding received from [Rockwool], no facilities of this company have been used and no information…has been exchanged.”  The research was done in his “private time,” Koch added.  This response conceals from readers that his company has previously, twice funded and sponsored tox studies on FR’s for polystyrene foams.  Koch’s article directly benefits his employer by casting criticism on a competitor’s product and his company has a history of doing so going back to 2009.  That is as blatant an example of conflict of interest as could be.  We wrote Koch directly to ask him about those points and you can view that letter here.  He ignored it. 

For his part, EHN’s Bienkowski complains that we didn’t “make a scientist or representative available to speak” with him and therefore “stands by the accuracy” since “Dow will not engage with reporters.” But that too is egregiously misleading. In fact, we reached out to Bienkowski right away and on the record, even though EHN had posted his article before contacting us.  We also sent him a follow up letter you can read that letter here.  The fact is EHN was specifically courted and selected (here) to publish this study and elected to quote a Green Policy Science Institute employee who was unqualified on this subject to explain what the degradation research concluded to validate their advocacy position. 

It might seem perplexing that researchers and reporters who are supposed to be shining a light on a complex subject would disregard our attempts to have a public discussion about their work.  But it’s worth noting that their work is being actively used as part of an aggressive lobbying push by the advocacy group Green Science Policy Institute, as we detailed here.  That raises critical questions about what’s actually driving the research, reporting, and public policy process.  We will continue to scrutinize how that is unfolding. In the meantime we applaud authors like Scott Gibson for pursuing objective journalism, and hope others will join in that open conversation.