THE BLOG
10/06/2010 02:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Europe Says Bisphenol A. Is Safe. But...

BPA x EFSA x FDA should = SAFE, right? Both the European Food Safety Authority and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have studied the science on Bisphenol A and, at the moment, they say that at the tiny doses most people consume, it's safe. The Europeans just reviewed more than 800 studies on BPA and "they could not identify any new evidence that would lead them to revise the current tolerable daily intake -- the level below which EFSA scientists think there is no risk. EFSA also said "the data currently available do not provide convincing evidence of neurobehavioural toxicity of BPA."

But several other governments say the same evidence does convince them, at least enough to ban certain uses of BPA, particularly in baby bottles. BPA x Denmark x Canada x several states in the U.S. = not safe, or, at least, not sure. And that's why this case is so interesting. It's not about what we know. It's about how we choose to keep ourselves safe when we don't know. How do we deal with uncertainty when our health is on the line?

The Canadian position on BPA captures this conundrum perfectly. "Health Canada's Food Directorate has concluded that the current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and infants." Pretty direct. Even a country that banned it says the doses we currently get are safe. But then they go on to say they are banning its use in baby bottles "due to the uncertainty [my emphasis] raised in some animal studies relating to the potential [again, my emphasis] effects of low levels of BPA." Most of the bans around the world say the same thing. They are being precautionary in light of evidence suggesting that BPA may be a health threat, instead of waiting until the evidence confirms one way or another whether BPA actually is bad for us.

What do we do with risks like this? Better Safe Than Sorry make sense, right? It feels right, anyway, although lots of times we make decisions about risk that feel right but actually make things worse. Worried about anything that raises the emotionally-compelling risk of cancer, we replaced a chemical solvent used to clean circuit boards with the non-carcinogenic chlorofluorocarbons that ripped a hole in the ozone layer. Freaked out about nuclear power, another cancer risk, we ended up with energy policy heavily weighted toward fossil fuels that kill tens of thousands from fine particle pollution, and fuel global climate change. Worry at the expense of reason doesn't seem like the smartest way to make social policy.

But reason, as glowing a goal as that is, is an unreasonable expectation. You and I are not nearly expert enough or informed enough to figure BPA out on our own. Regarding scientific evidence that some governments find convincing enough to ban BPA, EFSA said "these studies have many shortcomings. At present the relevance of these findings for human health cannot be assessed..." Geez, if the experts can't decide, how are we supposed to judge?

That's where a different science comes in. Not the toxicology, but the psychology of risk perception. And that science is pretty clear. Uncertainty about a risk makes it scarier. In addition, the fact that a risk like BPA is human-made makes it scarier than if the same substance were natural. Risks from sources we don't trust, like the chemical industry, are scarier. Risks that fit stigmatized patterns of what we've already learned to automatically worry about, like industrial chemicals, are scarier. Risks to kids? Whoa! Way scarier!

That's a lot of reasons why something like BPA fuels a lot of concern. And it explains why some governments, even those that acknowledge the stuff is safe, are taking a precautionary approach, particularly with the risk it may pose to kids... note that the bans are mostly on baby bottles. All those psychological characteristics make BPA scary. And scary is enough to prompt governments -- which are, after all, made up of politicians who like to keep voters happy so they can keep their jobs -- to act. Listen to the Canadian Environment Minister John Baird in announcing the ban: "Many Canadians, especially mothers of babies and small children in my own constituency of Ottawa West-Nepean, have expressed their concern to me about the risks of bisphenol A in baby bottles." Concern is not the same as evidence of harm.

But it's real, and in a democracy, how we feel must be respected. So the formula really ought to look like this: BPA x Uncertainty x Human-Made x Lack of Trust x Risk Belongs to Stigmatized category x Kids at Risk = Concern. We don't know if BPA is safe. Experts don't either -- though industry experts seem sure it is, and environmental health experts seem pretty sure it's not. I have no clue. Let me repeat that for all my environmental and industry friends. I am not nearly expert enough to know whether BPA is safe or harmful.

But I have read up on and written about what smart scientists have learned about how we deal with risks like this, and BPA is a classic case of how, as much as we'd like to think our thinking brain can figure out risks like this based on the facts, in the end it's not just about the facts, but how those facts feel.