As evidence mounts of the dangers of bisphenol-A, there is a rising urgency to purge the common chemical from consumer products.
Several states have imposed bans on the use of BPA in baby bottles, and many companies have voluntarily substituted alternatives for the petroleum-based plasticizer, which research has now linked with everything from cancer to attention deficit disorder to asthma.
But does a "BPA-free" label guarantee a safer product? Not necessarily, according to experts, who suggest that while consumers are being misled, regulation continues to go awry.
"Frankly, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatric environmental health expert at Seattle Children's Hospital.
Overall, some 80,000 chemicals are currently on the market, with only a small portion tested for safety. Even fewer have been evaluated for specific effects, such as the BPA-induced scrambling of hormone signals, which The Huffington Post reported last week might be contributing to obesity and diabetes epidemics. The consequences of this oversight go back decades. When Congress banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the 1970s, manufacturers began employing an alternate flame retardant: polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). It wasn't until years later that scientists learned this close chemical cousin of PCB was just as harmful, if not more so.
"Under the current legislative situation, there's no assurance whatsoever that whatever comes along as a replacement is going to be any safer," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "We can't test chemicals properly until we have new legislation in this country."
When the current Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in the 1970s, industry pressure led chemicals already on the market to be "grandfathered in" as safe. Dr. Landrigan added that the chemical industry has "expended millions" to block new legislation.
This is all the more reason for the U.S. to follow Europe's lead, according to Karen O'Brien, executive director of the scientific foundation Advancing Green Chemistry. Manufacturers should want to use safer materials, she said: "Doesn't someone making a product want to sell in Europe and not piss off American moms?"
Environmental and public health groups are trying to get that message across to Washington. The nonprofit Center for Progressive Reform recently released a paper full of steps government agencies should take to tackle BPA risks. The Natural Resources Defense Council has also sued the FDA over a more than three-year-old petition, in which it asked the FDA to revoke approval of BPA for any products that come into contact with food.
Even the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for the plastics industry, has contributed a petition for the FDA to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and "sippy" cups. The ruling would likely have little impact on manufacturers, however, as many have already adopted BPA alternatives for these particular products. Further, the ruling would not include canned beverages and foods, which are generally the largest sources of BPA exposure. As Kathryn Murray St. John, a spokeswoman for the lobbying group told HuffPost, the petition is "not based on any finding, conclusion or concern that these products are unsafe, but is intended to eliminate confusion in the marketplace."
The U.S. government has acknowledged the shortcomings of its more than 35-year-old toxic chemical legislation, and among current efforts is a collaboration between federal agencies called Tox21. In December, robots began cell-based tests of 10,000 chemicals to look for a range of potential toxicities, including hormone effects. BPA proved to be one of the most potent among the chemicals studied so far -- with the exception of a BPA replacement that messed with hormone receptors even more than the original.
The project is still in the research phase, according to the EPA. When and how it might inform regulation remains unclear.
According to some scientists, improved federal regulation won't come soon enough -- nor will it be enough to protect the public when it does arrive.
John Peterson Myers, CEO and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, suggested the government's approach misses the bigger picture. Cell-based tests cannot measure the signaling of hormones between different body tissues, for example.
Myers and O'Brien suggest an alternative strategy: create a new generation of non-petroleum-based materials from scratch, simultaneously protecting public and environmental health while reducing dependence on foreign oil. Rather than evaluating materials after they're made, chemists would perform several tiers of safety testing during the chemical's design process, making modifications along the way at minimal cost.
In the end, the voluntary program might look somewhat like LEED green building certification. And if successful and accepted by industry professionals, it could help guide the development of regulatory standards, Myers said.
China and India have already responded to Europe's BPA regulations in order to gain access to those markets, Myers added. "While they end up selling back to us, we stand around arguing if the science is 100 percent accurate."
Consumers can help protect themselves by making careful choices, such as glass over plastic containers. “The most important thing is your diet,” said Seattle's Sathyanarayana. “Eat a diverse array of fresh foods, local when possible, that lack processing and packaging.”
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