Denise Grady, “In Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer,” The New York Times, September 6, 2010
Where science has left a void, politics and marketing have rushed in,” writes Denise Grady in this New York Times article detailing the contentious scientific debate over bisphenol A (BPA) and its potential human health effects, including “cancer, obesity, infertility, and behavior problems.” Because researchers have not yet reached a consensus, the issue of BPA’s safety has become “highly partisan,” according to Grady. On the one hand, Democrats and environmental groups have urged regulators to adopt a precautionary, “better-safe than-sorry approach” similar to the one favored by the European Union. On the other hand, “Republicans, anti-regulation activists and the food-packaging and chemical industries” have insisted that BPA is harmless and “all but indispensable to keeping canned food safe.”
Grady attributes much of this rancor to the challenge of reproducing and reconciling study results, which often rely on different methodologies and data sets with varying degrees of integrity. “Animal strains, doses, methods of exposure and the results being measure —as crude as body weight or as delicate as gene expression in the brain—have all varied, making it difficult or impossible to reconcile the findings,” she explains, adding that academic researchers tended to find fault with low doses of BPA while regulatory and industry supported studies did not. “The split occurs because the studies are done differently,” Lisa Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, reportedly suggested. “Universities ‘have moved rapidly ahead with advances in science,’ while regulators have used ‘older methods.’”
Grady notes, however, that “new, government-financed studies” hope to standardize and alleviate some of these discrepancies over the next two years. In particular, the next generation of research apparently aims to determine (i) whether BPA “can play a role in obesity, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer and disorders of the developing immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems,” (ii) “whether low doses… can have lasting, harmful effects in fetuses and young children,” and (iii) whether BPA can trigger “epigenetic changes—meaning that the chemicals alter the functioning of genes, turning them on or off, but do not cause mutations, which are changes in the actual structure of the genes.”
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has “taken a seemingly paradoxical position,” deemphasizing BPA’s possible human health impact while urging industry to voluntarily eliminate the substance. On the BPA battlefield, Grady concludes, “Both sides are closely watching the issue unfold, because BPA is widely seen as a test case in an era of mounting worry about household chemicals, pollution and the possible links between illness and environmental exposures, especially in fetuses and young children.”
In a related development, the California Senate has voted against a bill (S.B. 797) that sought to ban the sale or manufacture of bottles, cups, and food or liquid containers with BPA if intended for children younger than age 3. Expected to pass its final and second round in the Senate, the legislation evidently stalled because two senators were absent, although environmental groups have publicly blamed industry influence for the defeat. These groups have also reportedly suggested that the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control could respond to BPA with regulatory mechanisms available under its green chemistry program. As one environmentalist told Inside Cal/EPA, “The biggest impediment would be that with green chemistry regulations in place, it’s another excuse for the legislature not to act, no matter what the state of the program.” See Inside Cal/EPA, September 3, 2010.