Surely you’ve heard about BPA by now. It’s everywhere. Some 7 billion pounds of it were produced in 2007. It’s in adhesives, dental fillings, and the linings of food and drink cans. It’s a building block for polycarbonate, a near-shatterproof plastic used in cell phones, computers, eyeglasses, drinking bottles, medical devices, and CDs and DVDs. It’s also in infant-formula cans and many clear plastic baby bottles. Studies have shown that it can leach into food and drink, especially when containers are heated or damaged. More than 90% of Americans have some in their bodies.
BPA is dangerous to human health. Or it is not. That’s according to two government reports in recent months that came to opposite conclusions. The National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, reported in September 2008 “some concern” that BPA harms the human brain and reproductive system, especially in babies and fetuses. Yet less than a month earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that “at current levels of exposure” BPA is safe. Even after the FDA’s own science board questioned the rigor of this analysis in late October, the agency didn’t change its position.
Let’s take a moment to ponder this absurd dichotomy. How could our nation’s health watchdogs reach such divergent conclusions? Are we being unnecessarily scared by the NTP? Or could the FDA be sugarcoating things? What exactly is going on?
We went on a journey to find out. What we learned was shocking. To some degree, the BPA controversy is a story about a scientific dispute. But even more, it’s about a battle to protect a multibillion-dollar market from regulation. In the United States, industrial chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise. As a result, the vast majority of the 80,000 chemicals registered to be used in products have never undergone a government safety review. Companies are left largely to police themselves.
Just five companies make BPA in the United States: Bayer, Dow, Hexion Specialty Chemicals, SABIC Innovative Plastics (formerly GE Plastics), and Sunoco. Together, they bring in more than $6 billion a year from the compound. Each of them referred questions about BPA’s safety to their Arlington, Virginia — based trade association, the American Chemistry Council. “Our view would be, Well, no, there isn’t anything to be concerned about,” says Steve Hentges, the council’s point person on BPA. “In a sense, you could have ‘some concern’ about just about anything.”
Perhaps. But consider this: Of the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects at levels similar to human exposure. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects.
Of the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects.
It is the industry-funded studies that have held sway among regulators. This is thanks largely to a small group of “product defense” consultants — also funded by the chemical industry — who have worked to sow doubt about negative effects of BPA by using a playbook that borrows from the wars over tobacco, asbestos, and other public-health controversies. A secretive Beltway public-relations consultant. A government contractor funded by the industries it was hired to assess. A Harvard research center with a history of conflicts of interest. These have been the key actors in how the science of BPA has been interpreted by the government. And it is their work, as much as the science itself, that has stymied regulation.
There are a few facts about BPA that everyone agrees on. One is that people are constantly exposed to the compound. Babies — particularly those fed canned formula via polycarbonate bottles — are at the highest risk from BPA; their undeveloped digestive systems metabolize it poorly. It’s also undisputed that BPA mimics the female sex hormone estrogen, and that some synthetic estrogens can cause infertility and cancer.