In Tuesday’s New York Times story, “In a Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer,” Denise Grady characterizes the continued development of new studies about the endocrine disrupting chemical as yet another dispute between environmentalists and chemical manufacturers over a ubiquitous chemical with uncertain health effects. While her assessment of the state of the science is accurate, she expends thousands of words parsing the uncertainty and profiling the scientists who’ve made it their work to reduce the uncertainty without fully exploring the bigger picture context that would explain why this isn’t a petty dispute.
The question Grady left unanswered was, Why is there so much uncertainty about the health effects of a chemical that is produced in quantities of nearly a million tons per year? Two reasons immediately come to mind.
First, chemical manufacturers operate under a system of antiquated laws. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), allows a company to put a new chemical into commerce without having to make any explicit determination about its safety. Instead, the company simply informs EPA that it is going to manufacture the chemical, turns over whatever health and safety data it might happen to have on hand (they’re not required by law or regulation to actually do any testing), and then just waits 90 days. In the meantime, EPA may only put limits on production or use of the chemical if it is able to make a determination (in that time) that the chemical presents an unreasonable risk. Of course, without any test data that would be relevant to that determination, EPA is not likely to regulate.
I say the system is “antiquated” rather than “backwards” because it embodies a trust in corporate decision-makers that does not seem warranted in our post-BP oil spill, post-Upper Big Branch, post-Vioxx, post-credit-default-swap world. As long as chemical manufacturers aren’t required to test chemicals and submit their data to neutral regulators before putting the chemicals on the market, we’ll continue to allow corporate decision-makers to foist any risks they deem appropriate on the unwitting public. Time and again, these people have proven their appetite for risk correlates directly to the potential for profit.
The Europeans once operated under a system similar to ours, but with the creation of REACH have shown their ability to learn and adapt their regulatory system to a changing world. REACH requires chemical producers to develop minimum data sets that government risk assessors can use to determine whether regulations are necessary. As the EU moves forward with REACH, the United States is being left behind in a literal dumping ground. Chemicals that have been banned in Europe are still sold here, including brominated flame retardants that have been linked to adverse developmental and reproductive effects. The TSCA reform bills that are currently in development in both the House and Senate would do a good deal to modernize TSCA. A main point in both is the requirement that chemical manufacturers produce data to enable a “safety determination” that would ensure new chemicals are safe.
The second reason for continued scientific uncertainty on BPA is that chemical producers manipulate an academic research system that is not designed to feed the regulatory process. Academic researchers develop new tests, search for new modes of action, and generally explore uncharted waters — and are able to get limited grant funding for that kind of forward-looking work. They don’t spend much time re-hashing old experiments, and they don’t always spend large chunks of their hard-earned funds dosing thousands of rats to get GLP-certified results when smaller sample sizes would allow them to answer the questions they ask. Corporate scientists follow in their wake, designing experiments, such as with BPA, to try to make mountains of the molehills of uncertainty in the academic researchers’ initial results. In fact, this industrially manufactured doubt is precisely why NIEHS has handed out $30 million in BPA-specific research money. Academic researchers who have shown adverse health effects from BPA exposure in the past are getting huge amounts of money to go back and essentially re-do their experiments with more rats and standardized procedures. It’s not much more than a slow-motion replay. But delayed regulation is as good as any outcome for BPA producers—after all, each minute of continued production means another two tons of BPA produced.