Flyer, Flyer, Pants on Fire!By Frederik Sisa @ 4:00 PM August 11, 2008
“Don’t Let Sacramento Politicians Remove Products From Your Grocery Bag,” says a flyer I received in the mail. Apparently, Sacramento wants to ban something called BPA, a material used in plastic food packaging and other plastic products. And that would be bad. But here’s a suspicious statement: “Banning Materials That Keep Our Food Fresh And Safe Is A Terrible Idea.” What a strange thing to write. Why would Sacramento want to ban something that keeps our food fresh and safe? Maybe it’s a “liberal” thing – because, don’t you know, a ban a day keeps liberal displeasure at bay. No reason necessary, right? Forget about it; there has to be some justification for proposing a ban, and there is: BPA allegedly poses a health hazard.
The flyer offers a website, bpafacts.org, to supposedly inform consumers and persuade people to petition Sacramento to vote against the ban as embodied in SB1713. It doesn’t take much digging to find that the website is “a project of the American Chemistry Council.” As the self-described “voice of the chemical industry,” the ACC (americanchemistry.com) “represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry.” We’re barely out of the starting gate and we get a conflict of interest: a ban on BPA would impact the chemical industry’s profits. Before throwing the flyer out, however, my first step was to find out what, exactly, BPA is. Enter wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bisphenol_A). BPA is bisphenol A, an organic molecular compound used in the production of polycarbonate plastics – thermoplastic polymers that make up many of the plastic materials we use to package food, to manufacture products such as a baby bottles, and so on. According to the wikipedia entry, bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor and estrogen receptor agonist. This means that BPA acts like a hormone in the body, interfering with the body’s natural hormones. Continued exposure to low doses can, apparently, result in chronic toxicity.
Follow the Footnotes
Of course, this is wikipedia, which means it’s necessary to play a game of follow the footnotes to be sure that the entry on BPA is playing fair. Thus, a few studies referenced by the entry:
Okada, H & et al. (2008), “Direct evidence revealing structural elements essential for the high binding ability of bisphenol A to human estrogen-related receptor-gamma", Environ. Health Perspect. 116(1): 32–38: “…results indicate that the phenol derivatives are potent candidates for the endocrine disruptor that binds to ERR-γ.”
Le HH, Carlson EM, Chua JP, Belcher SM (2008). "Bisphenol A is released from polycarbonate drinking bottles and mimics the neurotoxic actions of estrogen in developing cerebellar neurons". Toxicol. Lett. 176 (2): 149–56. “The estrogenic bioactivity of the BPA-like immunoreactivity released into the water samples was confirmed using an in vitro assay of rapid estrogen signaling and neurotoxicity in developing cerebellar neurons. The amounts of BPA found to migrate from polycarbonate drinking bottles should be considered as a contributing source to the total “EDC-burden” to which some individuals are exposed.”
There are plenty more, which satisfies me that the article is credible and properly referenced Interestingly, the wikipedia entry does not paint an unambiguous picture of BPA’s health hazard:
“…in January 2006, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment announced that polycarbonate baby bottles are safe and stated that published research on the health effects of Bisphenol A is ‘difficult to interpret and [is] occasionally contradictory.’  An assessment released later that year by the European Union’s Food Safety Authority reached a similar conclusion.” So did Japan.
Health Canada (http://www.chemicalsubstanceschimiques.gc.ca/), however, is of the opinion that while BPA does not pose a health risk to the general population and that the use of polycarbonates is not a problem, BPA in baby bottles can harm an infant’s health. “Health Canada is working with infant formula manufacturers to reduce levels of bisphenol A in the lining of infant formula cans, and encouraging the development of alternatives. As well, if no new information comes forward during the public consultation period, it is our intention to ban the importation, sale and advertising of polycarbonate baby bottles.” The FDA (http://www.fda.gov/oc/) adopted a similar position.
Is A Ban Too Extreme?
So it would seem that, given indecisive science, the ACC is right to oppose a ban…or is it? So far, this is what we can conclude: BPA is most likely not harmful to adults at current doses, although more research is needed, but is likely to be harmful to children. Missing from the discussion is what, exactly, S.B.1713 is proposing to ban. The ACC’s flyer is making out as if Sacramento is proposing a blanket ban. In fact, S.B.1713 is titled the “Toxin-Free Toddlers and Babies Act.” You can read the text in its entirety here (http://info.sen.ca.gov/), but here’s the gist:
“The purpose of this act is to build on the law enacted in 2007 to ensure that children are not exposed to harmful toxins… (e) The further purpose of this act is to ultimately eliminate bisphenol A (BPA) from containers that contact baby food.”
And here’s the kicker:
(e) Subdivisions (c) and (d) shall not apply to food and beverage containers designed or intended primarily to contain liquid, food, or beverages for consumption by the general population.
In other words, the American Chemistry Council is severely misrepresenting (that is, lying about) S.B.1713. I guess they’re afraid of a slippery slope – ban BPA for kids now, ban BPA for everyone tomorrow. But deception won’t help their case and, in the end, science must the final arbiter. Now’s the time to recycle that flyer.