It’s in CDs and water bottles, and is commonly used in the resin lining of food and beverage cans. It’s Bisphenol A, better known as BPA. It’s also what’s called an endocrine disruptor, because it mimics the effects of critical hormones in the body, causing a variety of negative health effects in research.
In a number of studies, BPA has been shown to disrupt reproduction in animals, and scientists worry that it can do the same in humans. The substance is ubiquitous, not just in the marketplace, but in the human body, because it leaches out of bottles and cans into the food or water inside, and is then consumed. One study found BPA in the urine of 95 percent of adults who participated in a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention screening program. What makes the substance even more worrisome is that it can do its damage at very low doses.
Despite these worries, the federal government’s response on BPA has been decidedly deliberate. As CPR Member Scholar Noah Sachs has said, “We know this chemical is entering our bodies and disrupting our endocrine systems, but the federal government hasn’t yet shown enough urgency in dealing with it.”
In January 2012, Sachs, together with fellow CPR Member Scholars Thomas O. McGarity and Rena Steinzor, and CPR Policy Analyst Aimee Simpson and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz, co-authored Protecting the Public from BPA: An Action Plan for Federal Agencies (CPR White Paper 1202). The paper offers up a series of recommendations for federal action on BPA, directing recommendations at specific agencies. Recommendations include:
FDA should pursue additional scientific study and data collection efforts, and issue guidance on BPA-specific safety testing and data submission requirements. The agency should issue guidance effectively prohibiting companies from using other endocrine disrupting chemicals while touting the products in labels as “BPA-Free,” and issue guidance stating that any new Food Contact Substance Notification Applicants applying for a new BPA use will most likely face denial if the new use involves contact with certain foods, such as infant formula. In the longer term, FDA should rewrite the “Redbook” Protocols for BPA and other endocrine disruptors, which do not fit the traditional risk assessment mold due to their unique low-dose adverse affects. Ultimately, the agency should issue new regulations outlining specific use and safety parameters for BPA.
EPA should update the existing IRIS toxicological database to reflect BPA’s known low-dose risks, and it should aggressively pursue development of its proposed BPA “test rule.” The agency should study both environmental and human health risk assessments. In the longer term, the agency should consider promulgating BPA regulatory safeguards, such as warning labels, specific use restrictions, and a potential ban.
OSHA should protect workers from BPA risks, assessing workplace exposures and informing workers of risk through Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) in line with the new Hazard Communication standards. In the long term, OSHA should establish a Permissible Exposure Limit for BPA.
The push for federal action on BPA has been slowed by an industry lobbying campaign. A 2011 white paper from CPR’s Steinzor, McGarity, Shudtz and Policy Analyst Lena Pons exploded a series of myths industry lobbyists have spun to delay action.
The myth of a scientific consensus on safety: Industry advocates commonly assert that scientists concur that BPA is safe. In fact, scientists agree that BPA is a known endocrine disruptor and that it therefore presents many risks.
The ‘Good Laboratory Practices’ myth: Industry activists argue that regulatory agencies should disregard studies that do not comply with FDA’s Good Laboratory Practices standard, including many studies that exhibit a link between low-dose BPA exposure and adverse health effects. In so doing, they misapply the GLP standard, which is focused primarily on recordkeeping and maintenance requirements, and is therefore not the best measure of a particular study’s scientific validity. It is a mistake to ignore the pioneering work that meets other standards of quality, like robust peer review.
The exposure and metabolism myths: BPA manufacturers would have us believe that the risk of adverse effects from BPA exposure is insignificant because typical human exposures are low and the chemical is readily metabolized into non-endocrine-disrupting forms. However, strong research shows that BPA’s ubiquity leads to such frequent doses that even healthy adults cannot metabolize all of the chemical in their bodies. Fetuses and infants, with their less developed metabolic systems, are at particular risk of adverse health effects.
The economic myths: BPA manufacturers maintain that the chemical is a key ingredient in safe food packaging, one that cannot be replaced with economical alternatives. In fact, numerous canned food companies have replaced BPA without significant cost problems, and BPA bans in Japan, China, and in various states in the U.S. have spurred innovation.
The myth of “patchwork” regulation: The BPA-manufacturing industry complains that lack of uniformity in state-level regulations increases the costs of producing, distributing, and marketing their products. Although a growing coterie of states has banned the sale of certain products with BPA, the truth is that non-regulation of BPA is the norm across the United States. The real purpose of propagating this myth is to move the regulatory debate to the federal level, where large manufacturers’ advocates often have a stronger voice than their public interest counterparts.