Update 9:47  PM Sept 17.  It turns out that the reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald didn’t receive the three emails I sent on the 15th, and therefore did not realize that I had responded.  We have since exchanged emails, and the SMH article has updated to remove the statement that I wasn’t available for comment.  Bottom line – if things get messy, reporters, please do do this, and thanks to SMH and the article’s writer for responding positively.  

Effective science reporting depends on a relationship of trust between journalists and scientists. Breach that trust, and effective reporting and science communication suffer.

Journalists need to know they can call on scientists to provide accurate, understandable, and often rapid, information on topics.  Scientists need to know their help and input will be used with respect and honesty.  Without trust on both sides, things get messy fast.

This morning, my name appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.  But not against a quote or as a source. Instead, this is what I read:

“Fairfax Media contacted … leading risk expert Professor Andrew Maynard at the University of Michigan. They were not available for comment.”

Where an organization or person is being held accountable for their actions in an article, it’s sometimes necessary to state when they weren’t available for comment – it establishes due diligence on the reporter’s end, and makes a strong statement abut the stance and attitude of the organization/person under scrutiny.

Experts who are approached for further insight, context, or background information on a piece are different.

Scientists work with reporters for a number of reasons.  Most often though, they do so because of a personal and professional sense of responsibility to help people understand their worlds through the lens of science.

If, as a reporter, you call out a scientist for not commenting on something, you erode the implicit relationship of  trust between your profession and your expert sources.  And in one fell swoop, you personally loose a potentially useful contact.

Why? Because calling an expert source out sends two strong and very public messages: It tells the world that this expert doesn’t respond to or respect journalists; and implies that they are complicit in hiding or obscuring something.

In the case of the Sydney Morning Herald piece, the call-out with my name implies that I could not, or was unwilling to, counter claims that titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide nanoparticles in food are dangerous to health. It calls into question my professional credibility, and it misrepresents substantially my perspective.

There’s a reasonable chance that this was an innocent slip – I’m still waiting to hear back from the Sydney Morning Herald and the reporter.  However, there is a twist to this particular story. Despite the claims that I didn’t, I did actually provide comments: [please see update at the top of the page]

At 1:00 AM Tuesday Morning (September 15 – the piece was published September 17), I received this message via email from the journalist writing the piece:

“In my research, I came by your article in The Conversation – https://theconversation.com/no-metal-oxide-nanoparticles-in-your-food-wont-kill-you-27545

I was wondering whether you’d be happy to provide some expert comments on these two nanoparticles, and whether they’re safe to eat. Since you’re on the other side of the world, I’m thinking email is best. I’m filing in about 18 hours from now. I’m keen to include your comments.”

At 6:26 AM, I emailed her back, noting that I am now in Arizona, and I needed to check with my colleagues who did the research the piece was to be built on before getting back to her.  But I would respond asap.

At 8:56 AM [Arizona time] I sent the following responses to her questions:

Friends of the Earth have raised health concerns about nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica? Are there any health concerns? What does the research say? Do consumers have anything to be worried about?

Titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide have been used in food products for decades, and there is no clear evidence suggesting that their use las led to cases of ill health in people.  Until concerns were raised relatively recently about the inclusion of nanoparticles in foods, there were no serious concerns raised by the use of these products to my knowledge.  Both materials have undergone robust but conventional (i.e. not nano-specific) safety tests for inclusion in foods, and research here has led to them being considered safe by regulators.

That said, our knowledge on how the materials we put in foods is constantly evolving, and there are a small number of studies that indicate that nanoscale forms of titanium dioxide and fumed silica could be more active in the body than otherwise thought.  This does not mean that there is a significant risk to consumers.  It may be that the safety assessment moves from extremely safe to very safe – but we won’t know until a lot more research has been done.  This research is important, as people are being exposed to these materials.  As yet though, while research indicates that we don’t know everything about how they behave in our bodies, there are no indications of serious risk to consumers.

Should consumers be worried?  Based on decades of people eating these materials, no – but they should expect scientists, producers and regulators to be doing the research to make sure these materials are as safe as they seem.

Generally, is the food industry using these nanoparticles on a wide scale? What are the main motivations?

These are two materials that are used very widely in processed foods, and have been for decades.  They either alter the appearance of the food, which is important for increasing its appeal and – in some cases – making it more appetizing, and they help give it the physical properties it sometimes needs to be a successful product (for instance, helping powders flow better, and preventing clogging – both during production, and during cooking).  The nanoparticles have always been there.  In the case of silicon dioxide, it’s always been known that the material is formed from large, rigid agglomerates of nanoparticles – this structure is what makes it so useful as an anti caking agent.  With titanium dioxide, the optimal particle size is around 200 nm – 300 nm, which is where these particles have the right optical properties for their use in food.  However, the manufacturing processes used have always produced a small number of nanoparticles that end up in the mix.  From the food producer’s perspective, the fewer of these particles there are, the better the material is.  However, it’s very expensive to remove them all.

Should nanoparticles be included on an ingredients label? Don’t consumers have the right to make an informed choice? Or is this not necessary?

Consumers are often smarter than we give them credit for, and on balance I think that indicating where there are specific types of nanoparticles in a product will help them make informed decisions.  But this must be backed up with clear, accessible and understandable information on what the label means.  At the moment, there is very little clarity for consumers on what they should think about nanoparticles such as titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide in food – and this is a problem as the label alone doesn’t help informed choices in this case.

And at 11:09 AM [I had meetings in between] I sent this:

… and a final comment

Pretty much everything we’re exposed to has the potential to cause harm – the trick is to work out how much of what substance causes what harm, and what the tradeoffs are for either being exposed, or not being exposed.  Nanoparticles of Titanium Dioxide and Silicon Dioxide in food are no exception.  Here, the issues is not so much the size of the particles, but what is and isn’t known about the safety of the materials, and whether the benefits of using them outweigh possible, but as yet speculative, risks.

Sorry for being so wordy – hope there’s something of use in all this.

I think this constitutes being “available for comment”.

Reporters – please don’t do this to scientists.  It undermines the quality of your reporting, it makes you look bad, it damages our reputation, and it makes us less inclined to help out in the future.

None of which is good for the effective use of science in society.

[Note: to be clear, this incident stemmed from my emails not being received, not through any intention to ignore them]

Feature image: Steve duong/Flickr.  Used under Creative Commons license.