Despite growing fears over the health effects of a chemical found in many baby bottles and a host of other products, federal regulators have done little to protect the public, according to a new report from a nonprofit research group.
The agencies plodding action on Bisphenol-A, known as BPA, despite a stream of research pointing to serious risks, doesn't bode well for attempts to address related chemicals that may pose similar dangers but haven't been studied as much, the report's lead author said.
"The sluggishness of the agencies means that there's continued exposure in the meantime and a kind of flying-blind mentality," said Noah Sachs, a law professor at the University of Richmond and an author of the report for the Center for Progressive Reform, which focuses on public health regulations.
Recent studies point to BPA's ability to interfere with the body's hormone system, potentially leading to a variety of health problems, including damage to the reproductive system and the brain, particularly in children. Eleven states have banned the chemical's use in certain products, typically baby bottles and other children's goods; Canada, China and the European Union have similar restrictions.
An industry group, the American Chemistry Council, says BPA has been used safely for decades and there is no evidence that it causes harm as it is currently used. A key component of many plastic products, BPA is found in everything from the lining of food cans to the paper used in store receipts.
Federal regulators have expressed some concern. The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are conducting research on BPA. The EPA is also in the process of proposing a rule to require further testing and is considering listing BPA among other "chemicals of concern."
These efforts, however, have been "meager," and the agencies have authority to do much more, Thursday's report says.
The FDA, for example, could ban BPA in all products that come in contact with food. The EPA could require warning labels and ban certain uses of the chemical. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could set and enforce limits on how much BPA workers can breathe.
Many of these steps would take time and likely face heavy resistance from companies that use the chemical. But there are steps the agencies should take now, the report says.
The FDA should require companies that seek approval for a new use of BPA in food packaging to provide more data about the product's safety, and certain uses -- such as in baby bottles -- should be presumed unsafe, the report says. The agency also should set up labeling standards and ensure that products marked "BPA-free" don't simply substitute a similar chemical that may pose similar risks.
The EPA should issue the rule mandating more testing, and the agency should update its database containing information about health risks from chemicals to include new data on BPA, the report says. As it is, the entry for BPA in this database, which underpins much EPA regulation, hasn't been updated since 1993.
OSHA should require employers to give their workers more information about the health risks of BPA, the report recommends.
An EPA spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment. An FDA spokesman said the agency has some concerns about BPA and noted its ongoing research efforts. And an OSHA spokesman said the agency takes samples of workers' exposure to BPA when appropriate but it has no specific plans for regulatory or enforcement actions related to the chemical.
BPA presents particular challenges for regulators, Sachs said. For one, attempts to manage chemical risks typically assume higher doses will cause greater damage -- something that may not be true with BPA, which has shown effects at low doses. And agencies are more equipped to evaluate chemicals that cause cancer, not the varied health problems often attributed to BPA, he said.
These challenges are not likely to be limited to BPA. The chemical is in many ways the poster child for a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors -- substances that tinker with the body's hormones. Others have received less scrutiny, but there is evidence that they pose similar risks.
"If we can't even take minimal actions on BPA given the state of the science," Sachs said, "what does that say about our ability to address other endocrine disruptors?"