by Marion Nestle

Search results: bisphenol

Oct 29 2010

Bisphenol A disappearing from packaging

According to FoodProductionDaily.com, a new report says that consumer concerns are driving companies to take bisphenol A (BPA) out of their packaging.  BPA, you may recall from previous posts, is an estrogen disrupting chemical in plastic containers and the linings of food cans.  Although the harm it causes is not well established, many groups have been working to get rid of it on the theory that estrogen disruption is not a good idea.

The USA Today account says

Some retailers say they’re working hard to go BPA-free. Last year, only 7% of companies had timeliness to phase out BPA. This year, 32% have set timelines, the report says. Most large baby bottle makers already have stopped using BPA.

It quotes the author of the report as saying that consumers are “voting with their shopping carts….This is definitely a story about consumers having a lot of power with the big companies….Investors and shareholders have a big impact, as well.”

In other words, getting BPA out of plastics is good for business.

And sometimes, consumer choice really works.

Oct 1 2010

Bisphenol A (BPA): the fuss goes on and on

At current exposure levels, is BPA toxic or not?  The question turns out to be difficult to answer for two reasons: science and politics.  Science does not have an easy way to determine the health effects of exposures to very low doses of chemicals, and the plastics industry does everything it can to minimize risks.

A recent study says that human exposure to BPA is much higher than previously estimated, not least because many of the sources of this estrogen disrupting chemical have not yet been identified.   The authors of the study, according to FoodQualityNews, want the chemical registered so that exposures can be assessed.  They also call for immediate action to reduce exposures.

In contrast, FoodProductionDaily reports that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just ruled that current exposure levels are safe.  Its expert panel reviewed  hundreds of studies of BPA’s effects over a six-month period.  The committee could find no new evidence for setting a lower level for the Tolerable Daily Intake, now established at 0.05 mg/kg/body weight.  But at least one member of the committee disagreed and viewed the evidence as less certain.  As FoodProductionDaily explains:

Bisphenol A is a chemical used as a monomer in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins – two food contact materials used in the manufacture of baby bottles and food and drink can linings respectively. Its continued use is a matter of fierce debate, with scientific evidence divided on the issue. In January 2010, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the substance was safe at current exposure levels. It also recommended that children and pregnant women reduce their exposure to the substance and that industry should seek to develop BPA-free materials for use in food contact materials.

As might be expected, the plastics industry is delighted with the EFSA decision.  FoodProductionDaily quotes a representative of the chemical industry:

Consumers around the world can be reassured that EFSA’s intense scientific scrutiny continues to reaffirm the safety of BPA in food contact applications, and again concludes that established safe intake levels for BPA provide a sufficient margin of safety for protection of consumers, including for infants and young children.

Aren’t you reassured by this?

Glass baby bottles, anyone?

Update, October 4France and Denmark say that unless EFSA requires lifting their bans on BPA, they intend to keep the bans.

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?

May 27 2010

The Bisphenol A saga heats up

A coalition of public health and environmental groups, collectively known as the National Workgroup for Safe Markets, has produced a report on the amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA) in canned foods: No Silver Lining: An Investigation into Bisphenol A in Canned Foods.

What did it find?  BPA in 92% of the foods sampled.  Most canned foods are lined with BPA plastic, and it leaches into the foods.

I’ve discussed concerns about the health effects of BPA in previous posts.  Here is an update on attempts to get rid of it.

To put all this in context, take a look at Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article, The Plastic Panic: How Worried Should We Be About Everyday Chemicals? He isn’t exactly sure, but points out how difficult it is to test the health effects of any one of many chemicals in our environment–flame retardants and plastics among them–and how far regulation lags in dealing with this problem.  He concludes:

How do we go forward? Flame retardants surely serve a purpose, just as BPA and phthalates have made for better and stronger plastics. Still, while the evidence of these chemicals’ health consequences may be far from conclusive, safer alternatives need to be sought. More important, policymakers must create a better system for making decisions about when to ban these types of substances, and must invest in the research that will inform those decisions. There’s no guarantee that we’ll always be right, but protecting those at the greatest risk shouldn’t be deferred.

Given the evidence brought forth to date on BPA, I’d call this an understatement.

Jan 16 2010

FDA to reevaluate Bisphenol A (BPA)

The FDA now says it has concerns about BPA and intends to join other federal agencies in a review of the chemical’s safety.   As readers of this blog may recall from previous posts, the FDA has a long-awaited report on BPA sitting in a drawer someplace.  The report was due at the end of November.  Now we can guess the reason for the delay.  The report must have given BPA a pass even though studies seem to be coming in daily suggesting harm.  BPA may not be immediately deadly, but it does not seem good for human health.

The most recent study, this one  from England, looked at dietary intake data in the U.S.   It concluded that BPA is a risk factor for heart disease.  The industry, of course, disagrees.  They think the British study isn’t scientific enough.

Faced with increasing evidence of harm, the FDA is doing the right thing to take this one on.  The problem will be getting rid of BPA.  We can all do our part by avoiding hard plastic bottles, but what about the linings of canned foods?  The canning industry says it doesn’t have a safe substitute.  Until they find one, you will have to add canned foods to the list of foods to avoid.

Dec 16 2009

The ongoing Bisphenol A saga: more updates

Ordinarily, concerns about leaching plastics are way down on my list of food safety worries (bacteria are #1), but the evidence against bisphenol A (BPA) continues to pile up.  The latest report says that BPA adversely affects the immunity of the digestive system and causes inflammation.  This, among other considerations, has led the National Institute of Environmental Sciences to invest $30 million to study it.

These and other concerns about its safety hazards have the plastics industry and its users in a tizzy and must also be paralyzing food safety regulators .  The FDA has postponed the release of its report on the safety of BPA.  The report was due out at the end of November but the FDA is not saying when it will be published.  The FDA just says the report is coming soon.  That’s not good enough, say critics who say that the delay is raising questions about the FDA’s credibility.

While all this is happening, United Nations’ agencies are planning a summit on BPS safety to be held in Canada in – don’t hold your breath – October 2010.

What to do?  Avoidance seems prudent.  BPA turns up in plastics coded with numbers 7 (the catchall category) and, sometimes, 3.  Can’t keep the numbers straight?  Try glass?

Nov 15 2009

Bisphenol A: And now, erectile disfunction!

The newspapers and the Internet are full of reports that men exposed to bisphenol A (BPA) have higher levels of erectile disfunction.  Before going into a panic, take a look at the study details.   This one was a survey of factory workers in China exposed to exceptionally high levels of this endocrine-disrupting chemical.

What does the study mean for men exposed to much lower levels?  We don’t have a clue.  But we’ve heard plenty of unsettling things about BPA (see previous posts), including accounts by Jill Richardson and others of the extraordinary efforts of industry lobbyists to prevent officials from banning BPA. This new research suggests that a ban is a pretty good idea, even if most people are not harmed by small amounts.

Reasons?

  • BPA is not essential in the human diet.
  • It is an unnecessary contaminant.
  • Small amounts of harmful chemicals can accumulate in the body.
  • We have no idea what the threshold for harm might be.
  • Removing it from the food and water supply is not all that difficult.

In sum, everyone except makers of BPA plastics can do just fine without it.  I’m stuck; I can’t think of a single reason not to ban it.

Update, November 20: According to reports, NY Senator Charles Schumer has introduced a bill to ban BPA.  The headline of this account says “tabled.”  I think it means “introduced”?

Nov 3 2009

Oh no! Bisphenol A again

Here’s a good reason why food manufacturers don’t want to test for harmful chemicals.  If you test, you might find something you don’t want to.

Consumer Reports did just that.  It tested a bunch of canned juices, soups, tuna, and green beans and found bisphenol A (BPA) in almost all of them — even the ones labeled organic or bisphenol A-free.

BPA, you may recall, is a chemical in polycarbonate plastics that acts as an endocrine disruptor.  How harmful is it?  Debate rages.  These new data will add to the debate.

CR says it found the highest levels of BPA in some samples of canned green beans and canned soups:

• Canned Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans Blue Lake had the highest amount of BPA for a single sample in Consumer Reports tests, with levels ranging from 35.9 parts per billon (ppb) to 191 ppb. Progresso Vegetable Soup BPA levels ranged from 67 to 134 ppb. Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup had BPA levels ranging from 54.5 to 102 ppb.

• Average amounts in tested products varied widely. In most items tested, such as canned corn, chili, tomato sauce, and corned beef, BPA levels ranged from trace amounts to about 32 ppb.

Because it was particularly concerned about BPA exposure for infants and young children, it tested samples of infant formula and apple juice.  It found:

• Similac liquid concentrate in a can averaged 9 ppb of BPA, but there was no measurable level in the powdered version.

• Nestlé Juicy Juice in a can averaged 9.7 ppb of BPA, but there were no measurable levels in the samples of the same product packaged in juice boxes.

Although the BPA in Nestlé Juicy Juice averaged 9 ppb, this was not so high, but children consume a lot of juice so this levels worries the testers.

While waiting for the experts to decide just how bad a problem BPA might be for adults and children, Consumer Reports recommends reducing the risk:

* Choose fresh food whenever possible.

* Consider alternatives to canned food, beverages, juices, and infant formula.

* Use glass containers when heating food in microwave ovens.

I would add to this: urge the FDA to finish up its scientific review right away.  It would be good to know more about just how harmful BPA is, and at what levels.

Update, November 4: I love the industry response to this report: “The use of bisphenol A (BPA) in can linings is both safe and vital for food protection.”

Update, November 9: Thanks to Jill Richardson of La Vida Locavore for telling me about her investigations into lobbying against restrictions on BPA (she also posted a summary as a comment here, but her site gives many more of the political details).  The plastics and related industries must be really worried.  They have reason to be worried.  There hasn’t been much reassuring news about BPA recently.

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