Bisphenol A: The Goods on a Bad Plastic

The leaked minutes from industry's bisphenol A strategy session in Washington D.C. last week tell a sad and scary tale of desperation.
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The leaked minutes from industry's bisphenol A strategy session in Washington D.C. last week tell a sad and scary tale of desperation.

Never mind that the estrogen-mimicking chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is on the ropes in Congress, in state legislatures and in the consciousness of worried consumers because of a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests this commonly used plastic chemical is bad for us.

Food and beverage executives and lobbyists for chemical companies and the food packaging industry are flailing about for a public-relations strategy to "prolong the life of BPA" -- committing $500,000 to developing a winning message, and going so far as to describe their "holy grail" spokeswoman as a "pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA."

The shamelessness of their shenanigans aside, BPA supporters seem to understand something about women and mothers: We get the significance of environmental health.

Maybe it's because we've learned how toxic chemicals that pulse through our own bodies cross the placenta and pass directly to our developing babies. Maybe it's because we know our breast milk, the very best nutrition for infants, is contaminated with BPA and notoriously bad actors such as the industrial compounds known as PCBs, the insecticide known as DDT and the flame retardants known as PBDEs. Or maybe it's because we're touched by the toxic legacy of diethylstilbestrol, or DES, an estrogenic compound routinely prescribed to pregnant mothers of Baby Boomers and some Gen Xers in the hope it would prevent miscarriages and premature deliveries.

Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the daughters of DES-exposed women are at increased risk for cancers of the vagina and cervix, structural abnormalities of the reproductive tract, pregnancy complications and infertility. And the sons of DES-exposed women haven't fared much better: they need to look out for cysts of the epididymis (the tube inside the testes that stores and
transports sperm).

In a creepy twist, a laboratory study conducted at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) suggests that bisphenol A may cause similar adverse effects as DES. Indeed, female mice exposed to small doses of BPA while in the womb developed abnormalities in the ovaries and reproductive tract as they reached an age equivalent to midlife in humans. Among them: cysts inside and outside the ovaries, polyps, and excessive growth of the lining of the uterus.

Retha Newbold, the pioneering DES researcher who conducted the NIEHS study, said her findings suggest that bisphenol A could be associated with endometriosis and uterine fibroids, which are the leading cause of 600,000 hysterectomies performed anually on U.S. women.

This is just one of dozens of pieces of worrisome evidence about BPA to come out of peer-reviewed scientific literature over the past decade. I write about many more of them in The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being (North Point Press, 2008).

Notably, the adverse effects seen in studies of lab animals exposed to BPA happen to correspond with recent trends in human diseases, including breast and prostate cancers, increases in urogenital abnormalities in male babies, a decline in semen quality in men, early onset of puberty in girls, metabolic disorders including Type 2 diabetes and obesity, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

No one can say for sure that BPA causes these health problems. Nevertheless, there are ample reasons to take precautions with the use of this chemical.

It's been almost two years since a scientific advisory panel convened by the NIEHS raised the warning flag regarding the continued use of BPA in certain types of consumer products. The panel's level of concern about the effects of bisphenol A exposure on fetuses, infants and children was serious enough for a warning from the panel chairman that it may not be prudent to wait for scientific certainty (if there ever is such a thing) to take protective measures.

It was clear to me that day in an Arlington, Va., meeting room -- crowded with industry representatives -- that official actions to limit exposures were simply inevitable. Indeed, only a few months later, in April 2008, Canada took the first step toward banning baby bottles containing bisphenol A. This year in the United States, Suffolk County N.Y., the city of Chicago and the state of Minnesota have passed BPA bans. More are percolating in nearly two dozen states and in Congress.

Consumers already are demanding BPA-free baby bottles, sippy cups and reusable sport water bottles. And the marketplace responded by developing and introducing safer alternatives. Six baby-bottle manufacturers have pledged to stop using BPA, and retailers ranging from Toys R Us to Kmart have said they are phasing out BPA-containing baby bottles.

Yet, rather than get busy researching and developing safer alternatives to bisphenol A, companies such as Coca-Cola, Alcoa, Crown Holdings and Del Monte -- in addition to the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and American Chemistry Council -- are bent on manipulating consumers into accepting the status quo.

What's really got them worried is how BPA bans might soon expand from polycarbonate plastic
baby bottles and sippy cups to encompass metal food and beverage containers lined with BPA coatings. This, of course, would have broad consequences for the companies and lobbyists who participated in the bisphenol A strategy session.

Earlier this week, after the California Senate passed legislation that would ban BPA in food and drink containers designed for children ages 3 and younger, the American Chemistry Council issued a statement warning the bill "will do nothing to enhance product safety; it will, however, result in reduced product choice for consumers and needlessly more expensive food products." The rhetoric is straight out of the PR playbook discussed at last week's bisphenol A strategy session.

Enough is enough. The Food and Drug Administration is hard at work re-evaluating a Bush-era conclusion -- based on industry-funded scientific assessments -- that BPA is safe as used. After a consortium of international experts from academia, government and industry excoriated the FDA's findings as incomplete and unreliable, it's a safe bet the FDA, under new leadership, won't be so easy on BPA this next time around.

There's no disputing that BPA leaches from containers and cans into our food and beverages. According to the NIEHS, this is how we're primarily exposed to BPA detected in 93 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 6. These unfortunate realities are the result of too little knowledge and too few controls some 50 years ago, when BPA was introduced into commerce.

Based on what we know today, though, the industry's insistence that we continue to accept BPA in our food and beverage containers is just plain insulting.

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