Washington Takes a “Fresh Look” at Environmental Toxins–Part 1

There’s a battle brewing over bisphenol A (BPA)—an ubiquitous chemical compound that is found in baby bottles, beverage containers, and in the lining of canned foods, as well as in hundreds of other consumer products. It’s a battle that might offer the first real test of the Food and Drug Administration’s new pledge to “put science first” when making decisions about potentially harmful substances. It’s also a battle that highlights serious deficiencies in the nation’s ability to control toxic substances in the environment.

According to the Center for Disease Control, 93% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA—a known endocrine disrupter—in their bodies. Last year, several groups raised concerns that these small amounts of BPA might be harmful to the brain, endocrine and reproductive systems; especially in the case of children and fetuses. In response, the Food and Drug Administration agreed to review scientific studies on the chemical’s possible health effects. The FDA’s official finding: BPA is safe at current levels of exposure, even for children and fetuses.

Remarkably, the agency’s own science subcommittee criticized these findings; charging that they “were not supported by the available data and science.” The subcommittee claimed that FDA administrators had relied on just two industry-funded studies and excluded 153 other, independent, studies that raised concerns about trace levels of BPA and their long-term effects on infants and children.

Meanwhile, just a few weeks later, the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, reviewed many of these independent studies and reported "some concern" that BPA could be harmful, especially to babies and fetuses that are exposed at higher levels and tend to accumulate more of the substance in their bodies.

In response to pressure from advocates for children’s health; state and local legislatures have taken matters into their own hands. In May, Minnesota became the first state to institute a ban on bisphenol A in all children’s products. More than 20 other states–including Connecticut, California and New York–and a few localities like Chicago, have introduced more than 40 bills that would serve to ban BPA in various consumer products.

At the federal level, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the “BPA-Free Kids Act of 2009” that would ban the use of BPA in utensils and containers that are intended to be filled with food or beverages and used by children age three and younger. The bill would treat plastic children's food and beverage containers (metal cans are exempted) containing BPA as a banned hazardous substance and would give jurisdiction for enforcement to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Manufacturers Fight Back

The companies that control the $6 billion market for BPA decided that rather than working to develop alternatives to BPA, their best defense would be to try and spin the issue in a way that might turn it to their favor. At a recent meeting, industry representatives quite brazenly brainstormed developing a strategy that could head off further bans and counteract the negative image consumers have of BPA.

According to notes from the meeting that were leaked to the press, the group, which included representatives from Coca-Cola Co., Alcoa Inc., the North American Metal Packaging Alliance Inc. and the American Chemistry Council (among others), discussed how they could highlight the benefits of BPA, and focus on "legislative battles and befriending people that are able to manipulate the legislative process." 

The Washington Post reported that;

“Industry representatives weighed a range of ideas, including 'using fear tactics [e.g. "Do you want to have access to baby food anymore?"] as well as giving control back to consumers [e.g. you have a choice between the more expensive product that is frozen or fresh or foods packaged in cans] as ways to dissuade people from choosing BPA-free packaging," the notes said.

The notes also indicated that the industry’s 'holy grail' spokesperson would be a “pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.”

Congress Responds

It turns out that the industry will need a lot more than a pregnant spokesperson to counteract their tarnished image. Last week, Representatives Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent a letter to John M. Rost, Chairman of the North American Packaging Alliance—the industry group that promotes the use of BPA in food can linings—requesting copies of all the documents from BPA strategy meetings in the last two months and a list of participants who attended.

Waxman and Stupak also sent a letter to Margaret Hamburg, the new FDA Commissioner, requesting that the agency, “reconsider the Bush Administration’s position that BPA is safe at current estimated exposure levels.” The letter charges that under Bush, the FDA relied heavily on the BPA industry to provide guidance on which studies to consider in its review of health effects of the chemical. “We also request that FDA examine its processes to determine whether its interaction with and reliance on industry groups was appropriate in this case, and whether changes are needed going forward.”

On June 2, just hours after Waxman and Stupak sent their letter, the FDA announced that it would take a “fresh look” at BPA and would complete its review of the decision to declare the current levels safe for infants. The hope is that this time, the agency will consider more than just the industry’s perspective in its determination.

The story of BPA is, unfortunately, not unique. There are increasing concerns about other ubiquitous environmental toxins; including phthalates (a plasticizer used in children’s toys and many other products), flame retardants and radiation from cell phones. Only 2% of the 80,000 to 100,000 chemicals currently in use have been tested for carcinogenicity and other toxicity. Every year another 1,000 chemicals are introduced onto the market—usually with little toxicity testing.

Many of these chemicals will have negligible effects on human health; many prove extremely useful in the design of new materials, technologies and consumer products. But there are some that, like BPA, appear to interact with genetic, environmental and other factors to create problems for long-term health. In my next post, I will look into the dismal state of research into the effects of environmental exposure to chemicals on cancer in this country. And I will outline new, paradigm-shifting strategies based on the “precautionary principle” that we can use to reduce these harmful exposures—and hopefully avoid another BPA-type debacle.

One thought on “Washington Takes a “Fresh Look” at Environmental Toxins–Part 1

  1. The two uses need to be treated separately. When used as a plasticizer in polycarbonate containers (water and formula bottles) the motivation is entirely aesthetic. Baby bottles used to be made out of glass, and if there is fear of breakage they can be covered with a plastic film similar to what is done with car windshields.
    There is also no reason for resusable water bottles to be clear, polyethylene is translucent and that is all one needs to see how much liquid remains. Eliminating these sorts of containers is straightforward and I think Canada has already mandated that.
    The other use is in can linings to prevent the food from coming in contact with the metal. Older technologies like galvanizing could end up giving the food a metallic taste and aren’t suitable at all for acidic things like tomatoes.
    To switch to a new system will require a major overhaul and it is clear why industry is resisting. Furthermore the evidence for ill effects in this use is less clear.
    Unfortunately in our litigious society separating science from commerce becomes difficult and the result is overstated claims on both sides.
    I see no immediate resolution based upon science and the public will remain in the dark. The makeup of the can liner is not one of the things listed on the label.