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Vom Saal was aware of the campaign before the first "Plastics Makes It Possible" commercial aired on television. He says a friend of his who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency called to say he'd heard from a well-connected source that the chemical industry was unveiling a massive public-relations project.
"They knew these [our studies] were going to be the end of the world for them," vom Saal says. "And they were going to have to spend millions."
"Preemptively," Nagel adds. "Really, because at the time, who needed to be convinced that plastics were good?"
The commercials showed images of children riding bikes — protected by plastic bike helmets — and premature babies being placed into clear plastic incubators.
"The really sick part of this is that they targeted the ads toward babies," vom Saal says. "And what her [Nagel's] data was so clear on was — "
" — That babies are the most sensitive to [bisphenol A]," Welshons finishes.
Rob Krebs, a spokesman with the American Chemistry Council, which merged with the American Plastics Council last year, remembers when the "Plastics Makes It Possible" campaign was in full swing. He denies that the industry group was motivated by Nagel's paper; versions of the campaign were in development as early as 1992, he tells The Pitch in an e-mail. At the time, he explains, plastic fast-food clamshells and disposable baby diapers were a new solid-waste concern, and people were fearful that the waste would clog landfills.
Krebs says that the first wave of plastics commercials focused on educating the public that plastic could be recycled. Later, he says, "We found that benefits messages about plastics preserving health in child safety, medical safety and automobile safety were more appealing to the public at large and scored higher positive impressions with audiences and viewers."
The industry response didn't end with PR.
In science, a controversial finding gains credibility when other scientists can replicate the same experiment with the same results. Vom Saal was expecting other labs to eventually confirm his findings. The plastics industry threw money behind a few corporate laboratories, asking them to try Nagel's experiments, but because they weren't endocrinologists, they needed some help. When representatives from the hired laboratories contacted vom Saal, he didn't mind sending one of his students to AstraZeneca's lab (now Syngenta) in England to teach his methods to their scientists. He also filmed his procedures for the scientists hired by Dow Chemical.
None of those studies found that bisphenol A harmed the developing prostate in low doses.
Meanwhile, Nagel was getting phone calls from the media regarding her paper.
"It was strangely nerve-racking," she says, "because I had no experience whatsoever in talking with the press. At the time, I had limited experience presenting my data in general, even to other scientists."
But Nagel wasn't alone much longer in talking about her findings. In 1999, Chhanda Gupta, a professor then in the pharmacology department of the school of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, replicated Nagel's study and found that bisphenol A permanently enlarged the prostate size of male mice that had been exposed to the chemical as fetuses.
Nagel finished her Ph.D. in reproductive and environmental endocrinology at MU in 1998 and went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University from 1998 to 2001.