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BPA: Recent Research Shows Continued Need for Government Action

Thursday, October 25, 2012

There is now solid evidence that Americans have gotten the message that the plastics chemical bisphenol-A, a synthetic estrogen that can disrupt the hormone system, is hazardous to their health.

On September 26, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new biomonitoring data showing a sharp decrease in BPA in the bodies of Americans surveyed in 2009 and 2010, compared to those tested in 2003 and 2004. In the most recent tests, the CDC measured BPA urinary concentrations with a geometric mean of 1.83 micrograms per liter, compared to 2.64 micrograms per liter at mid-decade. That's a drop of 31 percent.

What accounts for these encouraging developments? For one thing, organizations like the Environmental Working Group have been educating consumers about the risks of BPA, a derivative of petroleum that is used to stiffen polycarbonate plastics used for, among other things, drinking bottles, and to make epoxy resin coatings for the insides of food cans. For another, 11 states have passed legislation to ban BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups. Many of these items were once made from polycarbonate, which leached BPA into the surrounding liquid.

Still another reason: forward-looking companies have been changing their products in response to consumer demand: early on, prominent sports bottler makers Nalgene and CamelBak switched to non-BPA alternatives and metal bottles made by companies like Kleen Kanteen have gained market share. Last July, the federal Food and Drug Administration barred the chemical from baby bottles and sippy cups - a belated gesture, since it came at the behest of the chemical industry that had spent millions of dollars and several years fighting the baby bottled and sippy cup bans in states from coast to coast.

Unfortunately, the FDA does not restrict the use of epoxy in cans and other food packaging, even for baby formula. As scientists have long known, epoxy is an unstable substance that breaks down in the face of heat, cold, acid or caustic substances. A 2007 study by EWG showed that BPA leached into formula, food and drink from more than half the cans tested.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have been leaders in the effort to require FDA to regulate BPA in all food packaging. Markey has even taken a page out of the American Chemistry Council's playbook and petitioned the federal Food and Drug Administration to take executive action to ban BPA from infant formula cans and other packaging. The agency is currently reviewing and accepting public comment on the petition.

Despite continued claims by the chemical industry that BPA is safe, scientists are coming up with new data that underscore the need for federal regulation of this and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

A study published September 19 in the Journal of the American Medical Association and authored by a team led by Dr. Leonardo Trasande of the New York University School of Medicine found that high concentrations of urinary BPA were "significantly associated" with obesity in children and adolescents. These findings were telling because the study controlled for age, income, parental education, TV watching and diet. "Our study suggests the need [for the FDA] to reconsider the decision not to ban BPA in food packaging," Trasande said.

On September 26, a study by a team led by Patricia Hunt, a geneticist at Washington State University, and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detected reproductive system abnormalities in rhesus monkeys with body concentrations of BPA comparable to those measured in people. The study is especially significant because rhesus monkeys have reproductive systems similar to humans. This study also suggested that BPA-induced defects could pass from one generation to the next.

Food is not the only route for human exposure to BPA. In 2010, an EWG report "BPA in Store Receipts," found that 40 percent of the receipts from fast food restaurants, retailers and grocery stores were coated with BPA that could transfer to the skin when handled. A separate study by Swiss scientists showed that BPA from receipts could penetrate the skin. These findings are of concern for consumers, but even more so for the cashiers who may issue hundreds or thousands of receipts per shift.

In response to this and other research, EPA's Design for the Environment program is attempting to identify potential alternatives to BPA in receipt paper. But the agency's draft hazard evaluation (for which EPA is currently accepting comment) does not offer sufficient guidance to manufacturers who want to find non-BPA formulations. This shortcoming undercuts the goal of the Design for the Environment program - to assess chemicals based on existing science for health and environmental concerns so that businesses and consumers can choose safer chemicals and products.

As long as EPA and FDA drag their heels, Americans cannot be sure that the most vulnerable among us are safe from this toxic chemical.

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