At a public meeting Tuesday before a Food & Drug Administration subcommittee, the FDA stuck to its claim that exposure to Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, is safe.
Inconveniently for the FDA, a new study published today found an association between BPA and cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and liver-enzyme abnormalities in adults.
It was the first large study of BPA in humans, and it comes on the heels of a Yale study that found monkeys exposed to low doses of BPA (the same doses the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe for people) experienced memory and mood disorders.
And that study came out just as the National Toxicology Program reaffirmed an earlier draft report that found there is “some concern” that BPA can affect neural and behavioral development in fetuses, infants and children. (Here’s the NTP’s fact sheet on BPA.)
At this point, the FDA’s denial brings to mind a certain presidential candidate’s insistence that the economy is fundamentally sound as Wall Street burns and financial institutions come crashing down.
In the most recent study, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association and available in full, researchers from the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England, found that adults with the highest levels of BPA had almost three times the rate of cardiovascular disease, more than two times the rate of diabetes, and an increased prevalence of liver-enzyme abnormalities, compared with those with the lowest levels.
The study included a representative sample of 1,455 U.S. residents ages 18 to 74, broken up into quartiles based on urine concentrations of BPA. The data was acquired from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Previous concerns have focused mainly on fetus- and infant-exposure to BPA; the chemical mimics the human hormone estrogen and exposure to low doses in animal studies has been shown to affect reproductive health and behavior. And since BPA is commonly found in hard plastic food items like sippy cups and children’s toys, as well as canned food items including baby formula, exposure may be more concentrated at young ages.
But BPA is really quite ubiquitous. It’s used in the manufacture of everything from CDs and DVDS to dental sealants, and traces of it have been found in almost all Americans tested.
The most recent study doesn’t prove cause and effect, but it does add substantial weight to the growing body of evidence that BPA just isn’t good for us.
In an editorial that accompanied the study published in JAMA, John Peterson Myers and Frederick S. vom Saal wrote that the results “should spur U.S. regulatory agencies to follow the recent action taken by Canadian regulatory agencies, which have declared BPA a ‘toxic chemical’ requiring aggressive action to limit human and environmental exposures.”
“Alternatively,” the editorial continues, “Congressional action could follow the precedent set with the recent passage of federal legislation designed to limit exposures to another family of compounds, phthalates, also used in plastic. Like BPA, phthalates are detectable in virtually everyone in the United States. This bill moves U.S. policy closer to the European model, in which industry must provide data on the safety of a chemical before it can be used in products.”
You might say we’re a little backward in the United States, since we apparently prefer to determine safety after usage. (By the way, advocates of a new risk paradigm know as The Precautionary Principle have come up with a more sound approach to environmental and public health policy: When there’s a threat to the environment or our health, take precautionary measures, even if no cause and effect has been scientifically proven. This principle shifts the burden of proof on the proponent of an activity, not the victims. Radical thinking, huh?)
At the meeting on Tuesday, Peterson reiterated his concerns. (Listen on NPR)
“It is very clear that the FDA cannot conclude with certainty that BPA is safe,” said Peterson. “That option is no longer open to you given these new data.”
Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, also spoke before the subcommittee, and she criticized the FDA for reaching its conclusion on BPA’s safety based on studies funded by the chemical industry.
“Since these food containers are not proven safe, the FDA should not be assuring us that they are safe. It does feel like there’s been a rush to judgment by the FDA and that does none of us any good,” said Zuckerman.
The chemical industry, which produces 7 billion pounds of BPA in the United States each year, has maintained that BPA is harmless. The Chicago Tribune today published a front-page, above-the-fold story on the risks of BPA that included responses from industry officials who took issue with the new study.
“Urinary concentrations tell you the exposure over the last 24 hours, but heart disease and diabetes do not occur overnight,” said Steven G. Hentges, executive director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemistry Council. “Bisphenol A would have to be measured over the time period when heart disease or diabetes is actually occurring, so that’s a major limitation of the study.”
Dr. Anila Jacob, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, said the study raises questions about the BPA’s role in causing chronic diseases.
“We don’t know causality [in this study], but associations are important in public health,” Jacob said. “The first studies of tobacco found associations between smoking and lung cancer. These types of large epidemiologic studies are important in pointing us in the right direction.”
Plus: The Tribune also published a Q&A on BPA that addresses how BPA gets into our bodies, and it promoted SafeMama.com (on the front page; nice) for information on product safety. Here is Safe Mama’s list of BPA-free bottles and sippy cups.
Fortunately the Nalgene bottles I’m more attached to are also transitioning away from BPA.