Aug 1, 2012
What is wrong with our health system that allows a ubiquitous health threat to stay on the market despite overwhelming evidence of its dangers?
Bisphenol-A is chemical many haven't heard of before, but is common in our modern environment. Also called BPA, it is found in baby bottles, plastic water bottles, canned foods (it lines the inside of the cans), plastic containers, epoxy dental fillings and food storage containers.
BPA leaches from the plastics that hold many of the foods and liquids we consume. Ninety-five percent of Americans were found to have BPA in their urine in a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once in the bloodstream, BPA interferes with developmental and sexual hormone systems by mimicking estrogen.
Scientific studies have linked BPA to hyperactivity in children, birth defects, low sperm count in males, early onset puberty in females, obesity, breast cancer and diabetes. It seems to be particularly dangerous during pregnancy and child development.
If you track these and other conditions associated with BPA over the last century, you'll find sharp increases as BPA plastics become more common. So why doesn't the Environmental Protection Agency step in and ban such a dangerous substance?
For one thing, BPA was grandfathered in to the EPA's regulatory system in the 1980s, so it never had to go through testing to prove it was safe.
There is also a deep failure going on here in the scientific process. BPA has been well studied. In the 1930s scientists considered the chemical as a candidate for synthetic estrogen. Today, the science behind the dangers of this chemical is extremely compelling according to government-funded studies, while industry-funded studies suggest BPA is relatively benign.
Frederick vom Saal, a developmental biologist at the University of Missouri, has been on the forefront of BPA research. In 2005, Vom Saal published a paper showing that of the 104 government-funded studies of BPA, 90 percent showed harmful effects, while all the industry studies — of which there are a mere 11 — show BPA to be safe.
Based on his review, vom Saal thinks the studies showing that BPA is safe are "profoundly flawed and in some cases exhibit outright fraud. ... Among people who have actually read this literature there is no debate, just an illusion of controversy."
In 2003, Patricia A. Hunt — who researches genetic abnormalities at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine — published a paper showing genetic abnormalities resulted from very low doses of BPA in the eggs of pregnant laboratory animals. She also found BPA to be seeping out of used plastic water bottles.
"The effect we saw is pretty dramatic. ... We were stunned by how low a dose it took," Hunt said.
Despite these findings, changing our government's position on BPA is a tough nut to crack. Currently, industry leaders can game the system by funding biased studies or, conversely, by manipulating the publication of research by funding only certain contracts. Requiring that companies publish all such studies, regardless of their results, would go a long way toward solving this problem.
(Unfortunately, our government representatives are too beholden to big contributors to see safety issues like this clearly. The way to solve that problem involves campaign finance reform — but that's another story.)
So how can you reduce your risk from BPA? Start with your kitchen cabinet, taking a careful look at the types and amount of plastic in your environment, particularly those items in contact with food or water:
• Polycarbonate, the clear hard plastic found in plastic cups, dishes, water bottles and as containers for liquids and processed foods, contains BPA. As an alternative, bottles are available today made of lightweight and clean-tasting stainless steel.
• Instead of storing food in plastic, consider glass or ceramic containers. Purchase milk in wax paper or glass containers.
• Plastics that are heated or washed in detergents are more likely to leach BPA.
• Canned foods and drinks are also a problem. Consider purchasing fresh or jarred foods over cans whenever possible.
• Buying in bulk, instead of in individual serving sizes, also reduces overall exposure since individual containers have large plastic surface areas compared to bulk containers.
BPA is a poster child for why we need a government that respects science and is free from influence by moneyed special interests.
- Forrest Linebarger CEO VOX Design Group