The Food & Drug Administration announced in a draft paper on August 15 that bisphenol-A, a plastic hardener widely used in drinking bottles and food cans, is safe. BPA can leach out into food and water, but in amounts that, according to the FDA, are too small to worry consumers. This statement is only the latest step in a long-running government investigation of whether BPA is toxic.
Opinions on the FDA’s report are divided. Chemical companies are delighted, asserting that the regulators used the latest available scientific data to make a balanced decision – although the scientific data may come primarily from industry-funded research.
As environmental groups say, there’s also evidence that BPA can upset the hormone systems of humans and wildlife. A leading United States government expert agency, the National Toxicology Program, says in an April 2008 report that “some concern” exists regarding children’s health. This view is based on research on animals that shows lower birth weight and growth for newborns, and brain changes in baby mice and rats. No evidence exists yet for human health effects.
Critics believe the FDA tends to favor industry interpretations of the data. They call for precautionary action: ensuring that the humans most vulnerable to chemicals, babies, aren’t exposed.
Canada has already decided to ban BPA from use in baby products, and the California Legislature will vote soon on a similar ban. Some retailers are withdrawing water bottles containing BPA, while Wal-Mart is eliminating BPA from its range of products for children. The U.S. government risks being left behind yet again when it comes to protecting Americans.
An update: Researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine announced a few weeks ago that they had discovered a link between BPA and brain problems in monkeys, the first time that BPA health effects have been found in primates.
For more on the FDA draft position: http://www.fda.gov/consumer/updates/foodpackaging081908.html
This post was written by Professor Alastair Iles is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Iles studies science, technology, and environment, with a focus on how technologies – ranging from chemistry, energy systems, environmental health monitoring, to information technology – affect society and the environment. He received his PhD in Environmental Law and Policy from Harvard University, and previously studied Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia.