Already reeling from a decline in circulation and advertising revenue that has led to massive cutbacks in staffing and a shrinking stock price, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel received another dose of bad news this morning.
An independent laboratory in Reykjavík, Iceland, released a study that shows that print editions of the Journal Sentinel sold in the final months of 2009 contain trace levels of bisphenol A, the chemical that has been at the center of the paper's investigative efforts since 2007.
"I have not seen the study, so I can't comment on its validity," Journal Sentinel editor Marty Kaiser said.
"The only thing I can say is that we stand by the reporting in each of the 3,500-plus stories we have published on this topic over the past three years."
Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, is an industrial chemical that has been used since the 1960s to make a wide variety of plastics, including water and baby bottles. It is laminated on eyeglasses to keep them from shattering. It is used in sports helmets, auto headlamps, laptop cases, iPod cases and used on the interior or metal cans to prevent corrosion and contamination.
It is also, apparently, used in the production of daily newspapers.
As useful as it is commercially, BPA is also considered by some scientists to be endocrine disrupter. A number of studies have suggested the chemical's presence in humans is associated with elevated levels of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. When absorbed by the eyes it can cause readers to believe that dozens and dozens of daily wire stories were instead written by the staff of the newspaper.
According to the Icelandic lab, copies of the Journal Sentinel sold in the final four months of last year contained varying amounts of BPA. The chemical has also been found in the tens of millions of "Journal Sentinel Marketplace" difficult-to-recycle black plastic wrappers, littering the lawns of every resident of Milwaukee. The paper uses these free circulars to pad its circulation numbers, and recently several dead squirrels have been found lying near some "poly bags," apparently having expired from gnawing on the weekly shoppers.
"We're not sure if it occurred during the printing process or leeched onto the page from the ink, but it was definitely there," said Helga Halverson, who was co-author of the study.
"It was not a dangerous amount ... but, the newspaper was calling out other producers for exposing consumers to less significant masses."
News of the study passed quickly through federal offices and plastics plants.
"This is like Christmas, New Year's and Mardi Gras all rolled into one day," said Stanley Snuffington, a spokesman for the Plastic Bottle Manufacturers of America.
"These sanctimonious bastards have been up in our grill for three years and now they're getting a dose of their own medicine."
Mary Beth Modine, a Franklin-based school teacher, uses the newspaper to line her nine birdcages.
"I knew something was awry when I found my fifth parakeet 'beak up,'" she says.
Brick Bradford, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, was in the process of reading the study when contacted for comment.
"The last time I thought about Iceland, I was listening to a Bjork CD in the ‘90s," he said. "This seems like a pretty legitimate study, but you never know for sure.
"I do know this -- we have conducted dozens of studies, including weight-of-evidence analysis that concurs with reports from the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the UK Dept. of Trade and Industry and the Japanese National Institute of Health Sciences. We all agree that BPA does not migrate in any significant amount from exposure through consumer products.
"If you were to cram 1,300 pounds of food from BPA-lined cans or bottles every day of your life, you might come close to exceeding the EPA's safety levels.
"My guess is that you'd have to eat a couple truckloads of newspapers to move the needle at all, too."
The Journal Sentinel series -- entitled "Chemical Fallout" -- won a National Journalism Award for public service reporting from the Scripps Howard Foundation and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
The newspaper contends that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had relied almost exclusively on industry-funded studies in declaring the chemical safe for consumer use. Several states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Connecticut and three counties in New York enacted limited BPA bans as a result of the series.
"They created a bogeyman and then they tried to rally the villagers to chase him," Snuffington said. "The FDA exists to protect the public health. The newspaper should find something else to write about. I understand there are some bridges in need of repair up there."