What is BPA?
BPA (or bisphenol-A) is the tale of a chemical at the heart of a very heated controversy. It’s a common plastic additive, found in things like baby bottles and trash can liners that is used to strengthen plastics. It’s also a chemical that is absorbed into the body in trace amounts from everyday contact with these plastics. A recent CDC report found that 92% of Americans tested positive for some level of BPA in their system. Other studies show rates of around 97% to 99%, and a 2003-2004 federal survey found BPA in the entire U.S. Population. This means that it’s a chemical we’re all being exposed to. What it does next…well that’s the question that has everybody up in arms.
BPA was first synthesized in 1891, and was identified as an estrogen-mimic in the 1930’s. Depending on who you ask, BPA is either perfectly safe as it is currently being used, or it’s a poisonous toxin that is leading to heart disease, liver damage, fetal deformations & birth defects, early puberty, sexual problems, and a whole host of other maladies. Which brings up the question: Who’s right?
The debate about bisphenol-A
The Food and Drug Administration has taken the position that BPA is perfectly safe and poses no health risks at the current exposure levels. Japan and the European Food Safety Authority have also said that the chemical is safe. On the other side, Canada has considered banning the chemical outright, and scientists the world around continue to produce alarming studies regarding the effects of exposure to bisphenol-A, especially among children. This has many suspicious of the FDA’s endorsement, as several high-profile shortcomings in recent years have led to a loss of faith in the organization’s ability to perform its duties. Although the FDA, in its decision to consider the chemical safe, stated the studies in its review followed “good laboratory practices” in determining that BPA is safe, it didn’t help quell concerns that all 3 studies it quoted were commissioned and funded by industry groups that manufacture and lobby for BPA. Nor was it reassuring when an independent advisory panel later concluded that the FDA review was flawed and the scientific measures it used inadequate.
Dr. Rick Stahlhut, from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, sums up the general worry among researchers: “It’s just like every other environmental exposure problem. We are always two decades behind. Ten to 20 years after the chemical is produced, suspicions start to rise. By then, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry, and now there are forces whose job it is to keep it going – and that is what is happening now.” (Reinberg, 2008) Others have taken an even more impassioned objection. Frederick Vom Saal, a University of Missouri-Columbia professor, states that “the FDA is ignoring all of this research. While it has been doing that, Americans have been at risk.” (Szabo,9-17-2008) It’s sentiment that has been echoed by several scientists: “I do not understand why the governments of the United States and Europe put money into studying pollutants like bisphenol-A and then later don’t listen to what scientists have found,” comments Angel Nadal of the Spanish Biomedical Research Network in Diabetes and Associated Metabolic Disorders in Alicante. Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group, a private organization, says flat out that BPA is dangerous.
Not even all government agencies agree with the FDA. The National Toxicology Program has expressed “some concern” that BPA alters the brain, behavior and prostate in fetuses and children. Then early in 2008, a report released by the Department of Health & Human Services’ Toxicology Program raised concerns, stating that “the possibility that bisphenol-A may alter human development cannot be dismissed.”
One of the largest complaints by pro-BPA advocates is that most of the studies showing the most severe adverse effects have all been done in animals, most usually rats or mice. Animals aren’t human, they point out, and just because it causes these problems in mice doesn’t mean it will in humans. That’s true, but only to a degree. All drugs are tested in animals before they are used in humans, because with only a few exceptions, chemicals are going to react with the body the same in a mouse as they would with a human. While not everything is identical, animal studies are the basis of every drug that exists in your local pharmacy today, so to simply dismiss animal studies as irrelevant to human exposure is an absurd argument. If it’s good enough to develop medicine for humans, then to turn around and try to dismiss such studies as unrelated is nothing short of hypocrisy, especially when these same industry advocates turn to animal studies themselves to try and prove it’s safe.
We can tell what a drug will do in humans based on what it will do in animals to a relatively certain degree. The reason all of the studies showing harmful adverse effects are in animal studies is because scientists cannot ethically go around exposing people to toxic levels of harmful substances, of which BPA is considered. The same studies would be impossible to conduct in humans. Further complicating human research is the blunt reality that 93% of humans test positive for the chemical in their system. It’s impossible to get a control group to work out the impact it is having when everyone in the population has been exposed to it.