For the last two decades, scientists have amassed evidence that bisphenol A (BPA) poses a threat to human health. BPA is a chemical used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic, can liners for food and beverages, and thermal paper used for register receipts. It is used in so many applications that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found traces of BPA in 93 percent of people it tested. Although scientists have targeted BPA as a public health concern, plastics industry lobbyists have attempted to thwart the efforts of federal, state, and local authorities to reduce exposure to BPA.
The industry arguments can confuse the public because the way BPA acts on the body is counter-intuitive. Contrary to the old toxicology axiom that “the dose makes the poison,” smaller amounts of BPA are linked to a host of negative health effects. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, a chemical that interferes with the body’s system of hormones. The endocrine system is very sensitive, so just a small amount of BPA at the wrong time can have major health consequences. That’s why scientists and parents alike are so concerned about BPA.
Infants and small children are the most vulnerable, and they are also the most highly exposed to BPA. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) should coordinate their efforts to regulate BPA. And Congress should improve the federal approach to toxics regulation by affirmatively empowering agencies like the EPA, FDA, CPSC and OSHA to regulate endocrine-disrupting compounds.
For advocates who’ve been around the regulatory block a few times, the industry’s attack will look familiar. Industry groups have fought regulations on everything from automobiles to tobacco in roughly the same way. First, industry lobbyists attack the science, suggest that agencies use industry-funded studies, and stoke scientific controversies. Next, they claim that regulations will bankrupt the industry and kill jobs. Finally, if state or local regulation becomes unavoidable, they seek to undermine it by pushing for lax federal-level regulations, to take the wind out of the sails of state-level advocacy.
Today the Center for Progressive Reform releases a new white paper, Opening the Industry Playbook: Myths and Truths in the Debate Over BPA Regulation, which debunks five industry myths about the science, economics, and regulatory approach to BPA:
- The myth of a scientific consensus on safety: Industry advocates commonly assert that scientists concur that BPA is safe. In fact, scientists agree that BPA is a known endocrine disruptor and that it therefore poses serious risks to consumers, especially infants and children.
- The ‘Good Laboratory Practices’ myth: Industry activists argue that regulatory agencies should disregard studies that do not comply with FDA’s Good Laboratory Practices standard, including many studies that exhibit a link between low-dose BPA exposure and adverse health effects. In so doing, they misapply the GLP standard, which is focused primarily on recordkeeping and maintenance requirements, and is therefore not the best measure of a particular study’s scientific validity. It is a mistake to ignore the pioneering work that meets scientific standards of quality, like robust peer review.
- The exposure and metabolism myths: BPA manufacturers would have us believe that the risk of adverse effects from BPA exposure is insignificant because typical human exposures are low and the chemical is readily metabolized into non-endocrine-disrupting forms. However, solid scientific research shows that BPA’s ubiquity leads to such frequent doses that even healthy adults cannot metabolize all of the chemical in their bodies. Fetuses and infants, with their less developed metabolic systems, are at particular risk of adverse health effects.
- The economic myths: BPA manufacturers maintain that the chemical is a key ingredient in safe food packaging, one that cannot be replaced with economical alternatives. In fact, numerous canned food companies have replaced BPA without significant cost increases, and bans on BPA in baby bottles in Japan, China, and in various states in the U.S. have spurred innovation.
- The myth of “patchwork” regulation: The BPA-manufacturing industry complains that lack of uniformity in state-level regulations increases the costs of producing, distributing, and marketing their products. Although a growing coterie of states has banned the sale of certain products with BPA, the truth is that non-regulation of BPA is the norm across the United States. The real purpose of propagating this myth is to move the regulatory debate to the federal level, where large manufacturers’ advocates often have a stronger voice than their public interest counterparts.
Concerned parents and grassroots activists have led the way on BPA, and public outcry has caused manufacturers to voluntarily remove the chemical from many products for infants and children. But federal agencies need to catch up and develop tools to protect the public from dozens of other endocrine disrupting compounds. The agencies should use BPA to set the standard for how they address endocrine disruptors in the future.
Today's report was written by CPR President Rena Steinzor, Member Scholar Tom McGarity, Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz, and myself.