An update on BPA science
Posted March 23, 2012 in Health and the Environment
As the end-of-the-month decision from the Food and Drug Administration on the safety of bisphenol A (BPA) draws closer, the chemical industry is trying hard to paint NRDC’s advocacy against the endocrine-disrupting substance in a bad light.
Last week, on Forbes.com, a completely fabricated “leaked” memo that the author later tried to re-label as satire appeared. Normally, I would provide a link to something like this but the information about our work on the chemical was so scurrilous, we alerted Forbes and the editors chose to remove it. Mother Jones wrote about the whole fiasco. Then Wednesday, in American Spectator, another ludicrous column appeared again attacking the messenger with ridiculous accusations and assumptions. In both cases, we think these are largely chemical industry attacks, since they use similar language and have a similar lack of understanding or respect for independent science.
Meanwhile, industry groups have been pushing out lists of “experts” on BPA to reporters who can “confirm the safety and effectiveness of BPA in food packaging” and downplaying the importance of what we might see out of FDA in less than a week. These “experts” are not conducting research on the toxicity of BPA but work for trade associations, law firms or as consultants to industry.
Let’s set the record straight.
In 2008, NRDC filed a petition asking the FDA to ban the use of BPA as a food additive. Even then, we were confident that there was not enough evidence to conclude that BPA was a safe chemical and therefore should not be in our food supply.
We sued the agency for failure to respond to our petition and, due to a court-entered agreement, FDA must provide a final response to our petition by March 31st. Because the petition argues that FDA’s own regulations prohibit the use of food additives that “have not been shown by adequate scientific data to be safe for use in human food,” FDA’s response will necessarily include an evaluation of BPA safety.
In the 3 years since we filed that petition, there has been a lot of new science published on BPA. Federal research agencies such as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have invested $30 million dollars into funding new BPA research. You can get a glimpse of some of the studies that have already been published here and many more are expected to come out in the next year.
Thousands of new studies have been published on BPA and the majority of them continue to find harmful effects associated with exposure to BPA. We follow this science as closely as we can, which is admittedly complicated, controversial, and sometimes contradictory. That is the nature of science and, as scientists, we can never rely on one study to tell the whole story. No one study is perfect and no one study can possibly answer every question. As scientists, we must look to the entire body of research to see if there is consistency and replication of the findings. We look for the ability to draw conclusions across different studies from different research labs using different methods and models.
In the case of BPA, there are strong and consistent connections between studies done in the laboratory in cells (in vitro), in laboratory animals (in vivo), and in primates, including humans. These lines of evidence raise deep concerns about exposures during vulnerable periods of development and long term health impacts.
Some of the new BPA science is finding that the levels of exposure to the active form of BPA (“free BPA”) may be quite low and yet, is still within a range concerning for human exposures. Even if the circulating levels of active BPA are low, and that is an on-going area of research, there continue to be reports of harmful effects found at these low levels. Recent research finds low levels of BPA exposure causes harm in the mammary gland, prostate tissue, and brain. This is consistent with previous research in multiple studies which has linked BPA exposure to a predisposition to mammary (breast) cancer, prostate cancer, and changes in behavior. In addition, human studies continue to find links between BPA and cardiovascular disease, obesity and metabolic changes affecting insulin levels which could lead to diabetes.
It is scientifically indefensible to dismiss these findings or discount their significance because the chemical industry and others deem these levels of exposure to be “trivial”. The new science continues to be compelling and has not diminished our conviction that a hormonally active chemical such as BPA has no place in our food supply. While the chemical industry prefers and thrives on a system in which any chemical is “safe” until it can be conclusively and exhaustively proven to cause harm, public health demands a different approach.
Numerous countries around the world have already banned BPA in children’s products because of safety concerns. This includes Canada, the European Union, China, Malaysia, South Africa and Argentina. In addition, Australia and Japan have voluntary bans on BPA. Eleven U.S. states have also banned BPA in children’s products.
Despite the conclusions of the World Health Organization (WHO) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) analyses, the EU and many EU countries continue to uphold bans of BPA in consumer products because of undiminished concerns over the potential effects of low dose BPA exposure on development. Both the EFSA and WHO reports acknowledge these concerns and have called for further research and analysis.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., numerous scientific bodies of scientists and physicians, including the Endocrine Society, the President’s Cancer Panel appointed by President George W. Bush, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association have all publicly declared that BPA is a potential health threat.
FDA has a responsibility to protect the public’s health and one step they must take to fulfill their mission is banning BPA as a food additive. If FDA accepts our petition and acts to remove BPA from our food supply, the biggest sources of BPA exposure will be removed from the market and we expect the levels of exposure to BPA will drop significantly. We know that simple changes in diet which eliminate canned food and plastics can have dramatic effects on a person’s BPA level. The impact will be seen immediately.
We also expect FDA to fully evaluate any and all the replacements for BPA use in food containers. “BPA-free” does not necessarily mean it is safe. For example, one of the replacement chemicals for BPA in baby bottles has been bisphenol S (BPS) – a chemical cousin with relatively little safety testing. The reason chemicals end up being used in consumer products without being adequately tested is because of an outdated and ineffective law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. NRDC is a co-founding member of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign and we are working to revise this law and ensure that chemicals are safe before they can be used.
FDA has a legal obligation, and a moral responsibility to demonstrate that BPA is safe for use in the food supply. Given the continued concerns for harmful effects caused by BPA exposure, that bar has not been met and FDA should remove BPA from the food supply.
FDA’s verdict on BPA safety will be in soon and we are keenly interested in their response.
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