Taking on BPA

The chemical industry’s foremost trade association is embroiled in the controversy over Bisphenol A, the primary compound in the polycarbonate that lines food and beverage cans and comprises most hard plastic products. Recent studies suggest that BPA is as dangerous as it is ubiquitous. The press is catching on. Prominent columnists like The New York Times’ Nicholas D. Kristof ’82 have honed in on BPA as a potential health threat. An estrogen-mimicking compound, BPA is thought to have disruptive effects on the endocrine system, causing reproductive abnormalities and elevating risks of prostate or breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Although scientists, environmentalists, and consumer advocates have long petitioned for a federal ban on BPA in manufactured goods, the Federal Drug Agency has been reluctant to acknowledge the potential health risks associated with BPA.

Last July, the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and toddlers’ sippy cups. In good faith, consumer advocates perceived this move as a step in the direction of a federal crackdown on BPA. Few realized that the regulation was in direct compliance with a request from the American Chemistry Council, a trade association that represents all major companies in the global chemical manufacturing industry, including most manufacturers of BPA.

The ACC-compliant ruling came on the heels of the FDA’s refusal to affirm several BPA studies by various research institutions. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported concern over potentially adverse effects of BPA exposure in children. Later that year, the FDA rejected the National Resource Defense Council’s petition for a BPA ban, citing a lack of conclusive evidence. The FDA has likewise failed to acknowledge concerns from the National Institute of Health and American Medical Association.

In its explanation of the sudden BPA ban in infant and toddler products, the FDA maintained its position that exposure to the chemical is safe for all age groups, asserting that the ruling was “not based on safety, but is based on the fact that regulatory authorization is no longer necessary for the use of the food additive because that use has been permanently and completely abandoned.” In other words, allowing BPA in baby products had become obsolete because plastic manufacturers had voluntarily discontinued the use of the purportedly safe chemical in those products, presumably amidst media coverage of BPA-related health concerns that deflated consumer confidence. While these concerns were hardly unfounded, the FDA’s convoluted ruling did, at least, safeguard babies from direct exposure to the potentially toxic chemical.

New evidence suggests that BPA exposure might have adverse effects on children, not just babies, necessitating a wider ban by the FDA. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed an association between high BMI and high BPA levels in children. Controlling for behavioral factors such as television watching, the study concluded that, among children in the lowest quartile of BPA levels, 10 percent were obese. Obesity was more than twice as prevalent, at 22.3 percent, in children who exhibited the highest levels of BPA. The alarming implications of this study make it clear that it is high time for the FDA to issue a comprehensive ban on BPA. Yet the American Chemistry Council was quick to decry the study, and the FDA could in turn follow suit and turn a blind eye.

That BPA should be strictly banned from infants’ and toddlers’ products, while it remains a chief component in the diets and daily lives of their parents and siblings, constitutes a breach of rationality uncharacteristic of the FDA. When the chemical circulates in 9 out of 10 American bodies, any level of association with serious health problems calls for swift, regulatory action on a federal scale.

This doesn’t mean that banning BPA will be an end-all solution. Indeed, manufacturers of packaged foods and plastic goods have already capitalized on the consumer appeal of “BPA free” labels by creating products from closely related compounds that are potentially as dangerous. BPA notwithstanding, plastics teem with dozens of other complicated, recently engineered chemical compounds whose long-term safety (or toxicity) has yet to be proven.

The necessity of a comprehensive ban on BPA, then, is a matter of principle as well as safety. The BPA question is a landmark case that will set a significant precedent for how the FDA regulates—or quietly submits to—the 21st century chemical industry. Consumers are technologically empowered to educate themselves and lobby for their best interests, but they continue to lack the financial prowess and political wherewithal to take on the behemoth of industry.

If the FDA continues to cast doubts on significant scientific findings in favor of counsel from the ACC, who will stand up for consumers? It’s your move, FDA.

Tarina Quraishi ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.