by Marion Nestle
Sep 8 2010

Is Bisphenol A safe? Partisan politics in action

Yesterday’s Science section of the New York Times carried a story by Denise Grady summarizing the present status of the arguments over the safety of the estrogen-disrupting chemical in plastics, bisphenol A (BPA).

Who knew that supposedly scientific decisions about whether BPA is safe or not would be mired in deadlocked partisan politics of the Republican vs. Democrats type?  As Grady explains,

Environmental groups and many Democrats want BPA banned, blaming it for an array of ills that includes cancer, obesity, infertility and behavior problems….Many Republicans, anti-regulation activists and the food-packaging and chemical industries insist that BPA is harmless and all but indispensable to keeping canned food safe by sealing the cans and preventing corrosion, and to producing many other products at reasonable prices.

Dianne Feinstein (Dem-CA) tried to get a ban on BPA inserted into the pending food safety bill.  Her plan

to ban BPA from baby bottles, sippy cups, baby food and formula was blocked by partisan battling. She had hoped that the ban would be included in the food safety bill, not merely in an amendment to be considered separately. But after months of wrangling, she gave up. The food industry, mostly supportive of the food bill, threatened to oppose it if the BPA provision got in. So did many Republican senators.

The scientific questions about BPA safety are complicated and difficult to answer, mainly because the doses are so low.  Here too, politics intervenes.  The article quotes Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.  She and other scientists say that

studies by university labs tended to find low-dose effects, and studies by government regulatory agencies and industry tended not to find them. The split occurs in part because the studies are done differently. Universities, Dr. Birnbaum said, “have moved rapidly ahead with advances in science,” while regulators have used “older methods.” Some researchers consider the regulatory studies more reliable because they generally use much larger numbers of animals and adhere to formal guidelines called “good laboratory practices,” but Dr. Birnbaum described those practices as “good record-keeping” and said, “That doesn’t mean the right questions were being asked.”

In the absence of firm science, regulators have two choices: exercise caution and ban the chemical until it can be proven safe (the precautionary principle) or approve it until it can be proven harmful.   In this case, I’m in favor of caution (see previous posts), not least because alternatives to BPA are available.

Your preference?

  • Nicole

    How do regulators and legislators explain why BPA is still in use in the US and banned in so many other countries?

  • As someone who advocates for canned foods in my blog as a viable source of vegetables and some proteins for people in difficult circumstances, I’m very concerned about BPA in can liners.

    While I generally agree that BPA should have been proven safe in the first place, I’d like to see current, accurate research happen quickly, as the pine-resin-based alternative can liner will add about 15 cents to each canned item.

    Certainly, people most likely to depend on canned foods are also likely to be the most vulnerable to toxins. On the other hand, more expensive canned goods might put better choices just a little further out of reach of the people who need them most – so if there is no danger, we need to know right away.

  • Anthro

    Do the science, do it right, and ban the stuff temporarily. I considered Ms. Hays’ comment carefully before answering, so would add that we MUST step up educational efforts to those communities in need of sound nutritional advice. There are economical sources of protein and other nutrients. Beans vs. SPAM should be a no-brainer.

  • BPA-free baby bottles and sippy cups are available, but they are more expensive and cannot easily be found in the inexpensive “dollar stores” where low-income parents often shop.

    That’s why the California WIC Association fought hard to pass a California bill banning this chemical in baby items. The bill (SB 797-Pavley) lost by two votes last week, thanks to an all-out campaign to kill it — bankrolled by the chemical and infant formula industry. it was a classic example of how money talks and poor people lose!

    We’ll be back!

  • Susan

    If the consumer would buy products in glass jars …an old and known safe container …and one that is completely recyclable and advocate for less plastic/polymer packaging, this debate could be put to rest. Money talks and the sooner consumers take charge, the better.

    As for ‘safe levels’ of these unnatural chemicals in food containers … what idiot would promulgate the use? The ‘safe levels’ seen in one after another after another products all add up in our small children. Why would we ever play with the possibility of causing them harm?

  • Thank you for advocating for caution and for helping us make our food supply safer. We actually have a very easy, effective way to activate for foods uncontaminated with BPA: Vote with our dollars. Don’t buy anything with BPA in it. Use stainless steel or glass baby bottles, stainless steel sippy cups, coffee mugs and refillable water bottles. Buy whole, fresh, unpackaged, organic foods from your local farmers market or grocer’s produce aisle. Don’t buy foods in cans or wrapped in plastic bags. When we stop buying that stuff, they’ll stop making it.

  • MA

    Ban it! Glass works, is safer to microwave food in, if you do that sort of thing :o), and is completely recyclable.

    The way I see it, there is good reason NOT to use it, and NO good reason TO use it. Making something cheap is not a valid reason. If there are safer alternatives, those should be pushed.

    Vote with your food dollars: don’t buy canned foods.

  • It doesn’t seem so wise to really factor in that industry groups haven’t found effects at low doses. Pay scientists to find–or not–certain effects and it seems that is what you will get.

    It seems very logical to be safe and use the university studies, especially s Dr. Nestle says—there are alternatives!!

  • Cathy Richards

    Was recently watching a documentary on the development of the A-bomb during WWII, and it was mentioned how tightly Dow Chemicals was involved with the government project.

    Normally I think the government is in the thrall of industry because of lobbying and personal perks. This documentary reminded me that the government also Depends on industry, with a capital D, particularly in times of war. Imagine the secret meetings and the classified info that is passed over to meet war time needs.

    I suspect everyone knows BPA is nasty, nasty enough to get banned, but when both your hands are busy scratching someone else’s back it is going to be hard to draft and sign legislation to ban it.

    If the governments’ hands are unfortunately and not rightly (but understandedly) tied up, then that leaves it to us consumers. We can be pretty powerful. Trans fats aren’t banned, but we spoke with our wallets and they’re disappearing. Let’s keep slugging our bats at BPA.

  • @Susan- I don’t consider glass a particularly good option for sippy cups. Plastic is going to be used, and I want to know- have the alternatives being put in use been studied anywhere near as thoroughly as BPA? Are we going to be having the same discussion about something else in 10 years? What if- God forbid- the substitute turns out to be harmful, but BPA turns out to be no big deal?

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  • > In the absence of firm science, regulators have two choices: exercise caution and ban the chemical until it can be proven safe (the precautionary principle) or approve it until it can be proven harmful.

    Why is everybody missing the absolutely most obvious market solution of Pigovian tax? Chemicals would be classified by uncertainty and risk – new ones starting in expensive high uncertainty category. Enough time and enough studies would move it to lower uncertainty category – and either higher or lower on the risk scale.

    If chemical is safe, this gives industry incentives to fund independent studies of its safety. If chemical is unsafe but necessary for some applications, its demand elasticity will be low, so taxes will be paid by those that have to use it. If chemical is unsafe and not really necessary, it will be excluded from the market.

    It’s superior to existing methods for every category of chemical, even with highly imperfect regulators (100% corrupt regulators won’t work anyway, but we’re talking gray area). If regulator is in doubt, it can be easily augmented by prediction market in risk category options.

    Pigovian taxes can improve nearly every market problem better than regulation or self-regulation.