The federal Food and Drug Administration hasn’t forced the plastic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) out of food packaging – yet. But as things now stand, it’s just a matter of time.
On Friday, in a dramatic about-face, FDA officials announced they would “support” – meaning jawbone — the food industry to shift to materials free of BPA, a synthetic estrogen that leaches readily into whatever food or drink it touches and is linked to a range of serious health problems. Though the agency avoided labeling BPA a danger to public health — a declaration that would require immediate government action – its explanation was studded with more red flags, traffic cones, flares and police tape than a pile-up on the four-lane.
Baby bottles, Nalgene, Camelbak now BPA-free
When most people see a wreck in the distance, they start looking for an off-ramp. Companies know this, and the market moves. Major baby bottle producers and sports bottle manufacturers such as Nalgene and Camelbak have already stopped using polycarbonate plastic, whose integral ingredient is BPA.
Canning industry resisting change
The canning industry has been unwilling to abandon BPA-based epoxy resin for its metal can linings, pleading expense and lack of feasible alternatives. But on Friday, Dr. John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Association, sounded a conciliatory note, saying the canners “stand ready to help FDA in any process changes they feel are needed to better ensure the safety of packaged foods.”
If FDA presses ahead, the industry will have a tough time explaining why it is continuing to resist reformulating its can linings.
BPA in adults linked to heart disease, diabetes
Meanwhile, more studies about BPA’s impact on human health are lending a new urgency to the BPA issue. Last week, British scientists reported that they had dug into population studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and come up with a disturbing discovery: people with high concentrations of BPA in their urine were more than twice as likely to report they had been diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes as people with the least BPA. Such evidence is necessarily circumstantial, since it would be immoral and illegal to expose people deliberately to a suspected toxic substance. Study co-author David Melzer of the University of Exeter cautioned that since only 159 of the 2,605 Americans tested by CDC reported cardiovascular disease, “larger studies are needed to make accurate estimates.”
Even so, Melzer said, “we expect these figures underestimate” the real impact of BPA on heart disease and other health problems, since the CDC urine tests amount to a snapshot of an individual’s BPA level at a single moment and don’t measure that person’s true BPA exposure over a lifetime.
Research on BPA accelerating
More research on BPA and human health is in the pipeline. Linda Birmbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), has devoted $14 milllion from the Obama administration’s emergency stimulus package to an investigation of BPA and human health. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson has ordered a fast-track risk assessment of BPA and five other high-profile chemicals, with an eye to stepped-up regulation.
All of which means that BPA is going to stay in the headlines, and not in a good way. Looking down the road, we don’t know when, exactly, the FDA is going to take action on this worrisome endocrine system-disrupting chemical. But one way or another, we think its days in bottles and cans are numbered.
Remember Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Network?
People are mad as hell about contamination in their food, and they’re not going to take it much longer.