NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

In Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer

September 14, 2010

Government health officials still cannot decide whether the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, a component of some plastics, is safe.  The substance lines most food and drink cans, and is used to make hard, clear plastic bottles, containers and countless other products.  Concerns about BPA stem from studies in lab animals and cell cultures showing it can mimic the hormone estrogen.  It is considered an "endocrine disruptor," a term applied to chemicals that can act like hormones.  But whether it does any harm in people is unclear, says the New York Times.

  • Where science has left a void, politics and marketing have rushed in. 
  • A fierce debate has resulted, with one side dismissing the whole idea of endocrine disruptors as junk science and the other regarding BPA as part of a chemical stew that threatens public health. 
  • About half a dozen states have banned BPA in children's products, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein hopes to accomplish the same nationwide with an amendment to the food safety bill making its way through Congress.

This year, a presidential panel on cancer and the environment said there was a "growing link" between BPA and several diseases, including cancer, and recommended ways to avoid BPA.  Some cancer experts said the report overstated the case against chemicals, but the concerns it raised seemed to reflect growing public worries.  In May, a White House task force on childhood obesity issued a report suggesting that BPA and certain other chemicals might be acting as "obesogens" in children -- promoters of obesity -- by increasing fat cells in the body and altering metabolism and feelings of hunger and fullness, says the Times.

  • Perhaps not surprisingly, the issue of whether BPA is safe has become highly partisan.
  • Environmental groups and many Democrats want BPA banned, blaming it for an array of ills that includes cancer, obesity, infertility and behavior problems.
  •  Environmentalists think the United States should adopt the "precautionary principle," a better-safe-than-sorry approach favored in the European Union.
  • The principle says, in essence, that if there are plausible health concerns about a chemical, even if they are not proved, people should not be exposed to it until studies show it is safe.
  • The United States takes the opposite approach: chemicals are not banned unless there is proof of harm.

Source:  Denise Grady, "In Feast of Data on BPA Plastic, No Final Answer," New York Times, September 6, 2010.

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