Health scare surrounding BPA still lacks scientific foundation

Like Alar, DDT, phthalates, and a host of other substances before it, Bisphenol A (BPA) has joined the ranks of man-made chemicals to be vilified as threatening human health by activists and politicians, conspicuously lacking in evidence to back up their claims. 

BPA is one of those chemicals that make products we take for granted actually “work.”  Its unique properties make it a key component in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, chemical compounds that make everyday products – ranging from DVDs, CDs, cell phones, and bicycle helmets to food containers, toys, and medical equipment – strong and durable.  BPA has been in widespread commercial use for over a half a century.

But a steady drumbeat by environmental activists, alleging that BPA poses health risks, especially to small children, has had its effect.  In early March Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed a bill banning BPA in baby bottles and small cups for children aged three and under.  Similar action has been taken in Minnesota, Connecticut, the city of Chicago, and in three counties in New York.  “It seems to me that if there is a question of (safety), the balance we should strike is on protecting our children,” Doyle said.  The move was praised by Bruce Speight, director of Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (March 3) that, “Our kids are exposed to thousands of toxic chemicals, most of which are on the market with little to no safety testing.”

Not only does PIRG’s Speight ignore the rigorous testing commercial chemicals must go through before their manufacturers put them on the market, but he neglects to mention that BPA’s safety has been attested to by numerous international bodies.  In 2008, for example, a comprehensive European Union risk assessment reviewed all relevant scientific evidence and concluded that, “BPA does not posses any significant carcinogenic potential.”

Noting BPA’s role in ensuring food safety in canned goods, Chemical & Engineering News senior editor Melody Voith wrote in July 2009 that, “Linings made with BPA give a wide range of canned goods their long shelf life and good food safety record…Alternatives to BPA-based linings do not perform as well and/or are significantly more expensive.”

“Once suspicion of any kind has been leveled against the safety of a chemical, watch out,” says Chemical & Engineering News editor-in-chief Rudy Baum.  “No amount of contrary evidence will ever convince some chemophobic environmentalists that use of the chemical should continue.”

And that evidence keeps coming.  A February 2010 study published online by the scientific journal Toxicological Sciences dealt with pregnant rodents exposed to a wide range of BPA dietary doses. It concluded that BPA had no effects on brain development or behavior in their offspring that had been exposed to BPA in utero and throughout development.

Currently, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are reviewing the heath effects of BPA.

Well-orchestrated health scares against beneficial products and technologies have become all too common.  A decade ago, a group calling itself Health Care Without Harm launched a nationwide campaign against the use of vinyl in medical applications, including respiratory devices, blood bags, transfusion equipment, and intravenous (IV) tubing and bags.  The group claimed that these products were dangerous because they are made with a phthalate plasticizer that leaches “directly into patients.”  Even though Health Care Without Harm could not substantiate any case of a patient’s being harmed by the products, the hysteria they fomented could have persuaded hospital patients against using these life-saving procedures. 

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.