How America became obsessed with BPA
Why did the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) become the hottest environmental topic in 2008 after global warming? A building block of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, BPA was neither new to the marketplace nor unstudied by scientists: By 2007, there were over 4,200 studies covering a dizzying range of possible ways it might be toxic – and there was a remarkable global consensus that it didn’t pose a threat to health. A half dozen risk assessments evaluating the weight of evidence had found no cause for alarm. Even the very notion of risk assessment seemed to overstate the case for quantifiable danger, as scientists weren’t actually discussing actuarial or measurable risks – the odds, in other words, of someone, somewhere getting sick – but hypothetical risks, scaled up from laboratory studies where animals had been dosed through the mouth with massive quantities of the chemical to produce an effect.
In fact, after a review of the available research in 2006, Europe decided that BPA was safer than had been previously thought. The European equivalent of America’s Food and Drug Administration – the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – said the amount considered safe to ingest on a daily basis for life should be raised by a factor of five. Separate risk assessments by individual member countries – Norway, Switzerland, Denmark and Germany – sometimes focusing on different areas of concern, reached the same conclusion. A Japanese risk assessment also concurred.
In recent months, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand – a bi-national Government agency charged with ensuring food safety – said that it had “assessed the risk to infants from exposure to BPA and concurred with the conclusions reached by the US FDA and the EFSA that the levels of exposure are very low and do not pose a significant health risk.” Canada followed a different path, saying that the chemical should be banned from baby bottles as a precautionary measure, even though it explicitly said there was no evidence that babies were at risk.
In March of this year, the French Minister for Health, Roselyne Bachelot, responding to a question as to why France wasn’t doing the same as Canada, told the French National Assembly that Canada’s decision was an emotional rather than a rational decision:
“The precautionary principle only applies when there are no reliable studies,” she said. “Here, there are reliable studies which conclude, with current scientific data, that baby bottles containing this chemical compound are innocuous,” said Bachelot. “These studies are confirmed by all major health agencies,” she added, notably the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
But in the United States, an entirely different theme emerged in public debate: unremitting panic. There was a run on glass bottles as terrified parents junked polycarbonate; environmental activist groups warned that “millions of babies” were at risk; the media raged at how BPA was proof that America’s regulatory system was broken and that the Food and Drug Administration was relying on industry-sponsored studies to justify inaction; journalists reported, it seemed, every new shred of data on BPA, which now appeared to link BPA to almost every disease imaginable from asthma to cancer to obesity.
In the wake of this reporting came the lawsuits: In April 2008, a woman filed suit against Nalge Nunc in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento for asserting BPA was safe; the woman and her two children had used polycarbonate bottles from the maker for several years. As Reuters noted “The lawsuit does not describe any physical ailment suffered by the plaintiffs and seeks unspecified damages.”
A similar lawsuit was filed against another manufacturer in Connecticut. Sen. Diane Feinstein has proposed a bill in the Senate to ban the chemical – as states and cities enact their own bans. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are currently 55 bills in 20 states that aim to curtail the use or sale of baby-food jars and cans of formula that contain BPA. Despite concluding that the evidence did not merit any restriction on the use of BPA, the Food and Drug Administration has agreed to review the evidence again, at the request of Democratic lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The review is expected to be completed by the end of the summer.
“The precautionary principle is a principle of reason, and under no circumstances a principle of emotion” – Roselyne Bachelot
- Agence France Press, March 31, 2009
But were the journalists, the environmentalists, and the politicians, looking at all the available evidence – and looking at it impartially and scientifically? Or were they listening only to the losing side in the intra-scientific debate because it just made for a better story? Scientific research has long been plagued by the problem that studies which failed to prove a thesis or confirm a hypothesis don’t get the attention they deserve – even though the absence of a result is just as important as the presence of a result in figuring out a problem. But in journalism the problem is even more acute: as one reporter for a leading business magazine put it, “dying is sexy – and if you can watch your child suffer while they die, well that’s even sexier.” Did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which wrote over 30,000 words on BPA in 2008 get lost in the evidence, and end up being seduced by a storyline that made for great journalism but not very good science?
The newspaper’s investigative team, much like most of the other reporters at other news organizations covering the story, sourced the dangers of BPA to a handful of mostly American scientists whose work seemed to prove the existence of a threat, and who were willing to go on the record with sound bites that were irresistibly alarming, and suggested the possibility of a horrible compact between industry and regulators that was putting the public at risk.