STATS ARTICLES 2009
Consumer Reports "highly biased," says top European scientist: No need to avoid canned food
Trevor Butterworth, November 12, 2009
As scientific criticism mounts, Consumer Reports refuses to release details of how its BPA study was done or the name of the outside lab it used.
When Wolfgang Dekant saw the Consumer Reports study on BPA exposure and heard that the magazine was advising people to avoid food from cans, he was incredulous. None of the magazine’s claims were supported by international risk assessments of the chemical – including the one he co-authored for the European Union.
Dr. Dekant, who is Professor of Toxicology at the University of Würzburg, told STATS by email that there is no need for people to stop eating food from cans. He added that Consumer Reports’ account of the scientific research on BPA was “highly biased.”
The amount of BPA likely to be ingested from canned food is well below the safety limits set by the European Union, he said.
“We had a similar scare in Germany regarding BPA in pacifiers (it’s not used in the silicone or latex) but was claimed to have been there by poor analytical chemistry by an NGO [non-governmental organization].” Federal German authorities tried to replicate the study’s results, but failed, said Dekant. “Unfortunately, nobody was interested in just making it clear that activists often just do bad science.”
Dekant said it is vital to understand what analytical methods the magazine used to test the cans so that they can be verified. But phone calls and emails to Consumer Reports by STATS for a detailed description of these methods were rebuffed. The magazine told us to submit all questions in writing. STATS also asked whether the magazine’s tests had been carried out at the laboratory of Dr. Frederick vom Saal, America’s leading and controversial, anti-BPA crusader.
“It is not our policy to release the names of the external laboratories we use for testing so I am unable to provide you with further detail,” said Liam McCormack, Vice President and Technical Director, Consumer Reports.
It is important to note that any scientific study of the kind undertaken by Consumer Reports would not be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal without a detailed description of the analytical methods used. As Dekant noted, the magazine’s claims are at odds with every regulatory body in the world and with the biomonitoring data on BPA exposure collected by the Centers for Disease Control National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Dekant has co-authored some of the most analytically rigorous biomonitoring studies of BPA in recent years. Other scientists involved in assessing the risk of BPA have pointed out that lab contamination is one of the major problems in studying levels of the chemical in human blood. They have pointed out that Dekant has used deuterium-labeled BPA, which is like using a radioactive tracer, in studying how BPA is distributed and metabolized in the body. The results of these studies all point to the chemical being remarkably safe, given that it is used to prevent food spoilage, and thus bacterial infection, in canned food.
Dekant told STATS that the discrepancy between these studies and the Consumer Reports study “points to a problem with the analytics.”
The implication of the magazine’s lack of transparency is that consumers should just trust Consumers Reports. But the author of the magazine’s BPA study, Dr. Urvashi Rangan, was criticized earlier this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top researcher on endocrine disruption for “a lack of understanding about the basic biology of the cellular and molecular basis for tissue-specific responses.”
Dr. Earl Gray told STATS that Dr. Rangan’s criticism of a recent EPA study, which failed to find adverse health effects from BPA, recycled an “ad hominem attack” that has been addressed by several expert panels and “dismissed…as without scientific merit.”
This latest criticism from one of the lead authors of the European Union’s BPA risk assessment is particularly ironic given that Dr. Rangan has publicly endorsed Europe’s approach to chemical regulation as being superior to the U.S. According to an MSNBC story in 2006:
“Rangan says, the real problem lies in how we currently address the potential dangers associated with these chemicals. ‘Europe tends to operate on the precautionary principle and they tend not to make things legal until there’s a proof of safety,’ she says. ‘Here, it’s the opposite. In order for the FDA to ban a chemical used in cosmetics it has to be proven harmful.’”
In 2006, the European Union risk assessment on BPA declared the chemical safe and endorsed a tolerable daily intake (reference dose) that Consumers Report claims is outdated. In 2008, the European Union reviewed the evidence again and reached the same conclusion. As France’s Health Minister explained to the National Assembly earlier this year, the precautionary principle only applies when there is no reliable evidence. “Here there is reliable evidence.”
In July of this year, a panel of seven physicians unanimously rejected listing BPA under California’s Proposition 65, a voter-approved measure used to identify toxic substances.
The gap between Consumer Report’s position and the rest of the world on BPA appears to be based on Dr. Rangan’s exclusive reliance on anti-BPA activists and scientists for its risk assessment. For example, Consumer Reports claims that
“Several animal studies show adverse effects, such as abnormal reproductive development, at exposures of 2.4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day. Our food-safety scientists recommend limiting daily exposure to one-thousandth of that level, or 0.0024 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, following established practices to ensure an adequate margin of safety.”
This interpretation of the research on BPA appears to come from the Environmental Working Group, which cited Howdeshell, 1999, Honma, 2002, and Akingbemi, 2004 for this particular claim.
Dekant noted that the Honma study administered BPA by injection and that its findings have not been replicated by oral administration. [For an explanation of why risk assessments on BPA have rejected studies based on injection, click here]
With the Howdeshell study, the Center for Evaluation for Risks to Human Reproduction “is quite clear that utility is ‘limited,’ said Dekant. Howdeshell’s recent studies for the EPA have failed to show any effect from BPA.
While the route of exposure was oral in the Akingbemi study, it also used the Long Evans rat, the very rat that Dr. Rangan said invalidated the recent EPA study. Dekant noted that it was not the rat strain but other problems with this study that gave both the European Food Safety Authority and the Center for Evaluation for Risks to Human Reproduction “lots of reservations” about its utility for risk evaluation).
As for the magazine’s food safety scientists recommending that BPA exposure should be 1,000 times lower than 2.4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day, Dekant wanted to know who were the magazine’s food safety scientists, and what were their qualifications. All the regulatory agencies have reached a different conclusion, he said.
Consumer Reports also later claimed on its blog in response to criticisms that it relied on studies that injected animals with BPA that,
“In studies using adult lab animals, injecting BPA results in levels that are similar or slightly higher than those seen after the chemicals are administered orally, making those studies relevant. And a comprehensive study of the metabolism of BPA in newborn lab animals showed that there was no difference in the levels of free BPA based on the route of administration (oral versus injection). This suggests that for newborns, who are especially vulnerable to BPA’s health risks, the route of exposure matters even less than in adults.”
But Dekant said that this study only recovered “less then a few percent of what they administered and the analytics are so poor that they may just have measured an impurity. You have to do mass balance (at least, measure total radioactivity and how much of it is BPA and what else is there) in such studies to come to conclusions, and this was not done.”
The logic of Consumer Reports’ approach to assessing the risk of BPA suggests it should also call for a total ban on beer and wine. As Dekant noted. “Beer contains phytoestrogens and the known human developmental toxin ethanol (an endocrine disruptor, since it also has been reported to bind to estrogen receptors) in concentrations from 35 000 to 110 000 ppm [parts per million]. Wine is even worse.”