BPA Craziness

The sad saga of bisphenol A (BPA) and food containers reveals much about what is wrong with some environmentalists today.

C&EN has covered the health concerns associated with BPA extensively for several years. We have covered the reports of the National Toxicology Program on the health effects of BPA and the Food & Drug Administration’s difficult balancing act in regulating human exposure to the chemical.

C&EN has also covered the chemistry that makes it difficult to eliminate all uses of BPA associated with food. Senior Editor Mitch Jacoby, for example, wrote in the Dec. 15, 2008, issue (page 31) that “for many food applications, for example, in the metal-packaging industry, finding a new material with just the right combination of properties remains a major challenge” because “the materials used to coat food cans must adhere strongly, provide corrosion resistance, and withstand the high temperatures required for sterilization and processing. The coating also has to be compatible chemically with the food and cannot impart a flavor or odor.” BPA has all of these characteristics; most potential alternatives do not.

Last year, Senior Editor Melody Voith addressed this issue as well (July 20, 2009, page 28). “Linings made with BPA give a wide range of canned goods their long shelf life and good food safety record,” Voith wrote. “Without any lining, a typical aluminum or steel can creates a strong air and light barrier all by itself. But eventually, contact between the food and the metal will corrode the packaging, leading to spoilage or microbial contamination. Corrosion would rapidly ruin high-acid foods, such as tomatoes. Low-acid foods like peas may last longer but are more likely to harbor toxin-producing bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum.” Alternatives to BPA-based linings do not perform as well and/or are significantly more expensive.

The fact is that the evidence linking BPA with adverse health effects is weak. Many studies have been carried out, and the results have been contradictory. This is why FDA has acted cautiously with regard to BPA and why the chemical and food-packaging industries resist stringent regulation of it. FDA announced earlier this year that it has “some concern” about the potential health effects of BPA in infants and children, but also said that more research is needed to fully assess the safety of the chemical (C&EN, Jan. 25, page 8). Market pressure, however, has effectively removed BPA from products such as baby bottles, so that’s no longer an issue.

Nevertheless, the drumbeat against BPA continues. Once suspicion of any kind has been leveled against the safety of a chemical, watch out. No amount of contrary evidence will ever convince some chemophobic environmentalists that use of the chemical should continue. Ban it. Period. It’s no wonder the chemical industry shudders at the mere mention of the precautionary principle.

A front-page story in the Feb. 23 Washington Post, “Replacing BPA in Cans Gives Foodmakers Fits,” carries on in that tradition. Despite the fact that it calls BPA a “synthetic estrogen,” which it isn’t (BPA exhibits weak estrogenic activity, but it is not related to estrogen structurally), the story is, for the most part, factually accurate. Its underlying premise, however, is that exposure to BPA is dangerous. Running throughout the story is the assumption that BPA should be removed from all food containers. A sidebar on the jump page is titled “How to reduce BPA exposure.”

No one has shown that adults exposed to BPA at the levels that leach from food container liners suffer any harm. Potential replacements for BPA don’t work as well and very likely will pose risks of their own. BPA and the polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins that are made from it are useful chemicals that are getting a bum rap from people who don’t know what they are talking about.

Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. There have been several articles in Environmental Health Perspectives that have linked BPA to chemotherapy resistance, particularly in treatment of breast cancer. That’s not something that would affect everyone, but it does suggest issues for some people, particularly those with susceptibility to certain types of cancer. I’m not familiar with this journal, but it seems to be a peer reviewed journal that’s based on scientific studies. Environ Health Perspect. 2009 February; 117(2): A75

    I’m skeptical of most environmental claims about “bad chemicals” but these articles led me to give up canned foods while I was undergoing chemotherapy. (Unfortunately, that meant giving up tomatoes since I couldn’t find a BPA-free source during the winter when fresh tomatoes were not available.)

  2. The crux of your argument is that BPA evidence as a health problem is weak. in fact that seems to be the key point of your article. however you do not even specifically address the research that is out there. instead you spend the article explaining why it is useful. however that seems tangential to your point, and is really irrelevant if there actually turns out to be health problems.
    Your FDA quote is interesting because you don’t mention that the FDA had previously stated that BPA had no health issues, but has now been convinced that ‘something’ may be bad about it. This is important when considering that we as scientists are who the consumers trust when we state something is safe.
    You also don’t address the technical issues associated with such inherently long term study suggested by the statement ‘No one has shown that adults exposed to BPA at the levels that leach from food container liners suffer any harm’ and also don’t address the different qualifiers present in that statement. It has been shown that high levels of BPA can affect humans. It does not seem unreasonable then to approach the situation carefully. This is the same issue that arose with tobacco, when the side-effects are long term, it is much harder to address it. Long-term affects can also give rise to contradictory research results, another important piece of information.
    In the end this looks like an emotional rant against people who prefer caution when dealing with blurry long term health issues in the public.
    You conclude that BPA is safe, however you deride all people who disagree with you as “chemophobic environmentalists” & “people who don’t know what they are talking about” without acknowledging the valid scientific underpinnings of their arguments.

  3. Environmentalists have done a lot of good, but I think one of the reasons it is so hard to fight what has become environmental orthodoxy in a story like this is that you are going up against something that has every aspect of a religion to a lot of people. As a religious person might try to keep in mind throughout the day how they can live in their every action to best glorify God, so many environmentalists try to keep in mind in their every action how they can best protect the planet. As religion provides small things that everyone can do (prayer, sacraments) as part of their devotion, so does environmentalism – switch to CFLs, don’t use bottles containing BPA, etc. There are also strong community aspects to both. I think a lot of people find “going green” to be spiritually fulfilling in a true sense. “A person will worship something,” Emerson said, it need not be an actual deity. To come forth with a story like this is to tell them that their devotion all this time has been misplaced, and that’s never very easy to admit.

    OK, that’s enough amateur psychology for today.

  4. @Kaen: Environmental Health Perspectives is a very well-regarded, peer-reviewed journal. I had not heard about the possibility of BPA interfering with chemotherapy, and I can well understand your decision to avoid food from lined cans while undergoing chemotherapy. I hope you’re doing well.
    @Aaron: FDA has “some concern” about BPA and infants and children and urges further study of BPA in these individuals. That research is being done, and BPA isn’t in any baby bottles anymore. I don’t think the analogy between tobacco and BPA holds any water. Tobacco industry execs were defending tobacco products long after we knew those products were killing millions of people. As I wrote, there isn’t any evidence that BPA at the levels people are exposed to from can liners is hurting anybody. And the liners made from it are very useful and hard to replace. I don’t consider pointing that out to be an “emotional rant.”
    @David: I consider myself an environmentalist and a chemist, but I try to approach both rationally. Chlorofluorocarbons were destroying the ozone layer, and, despite their usefulness, they needed to be replaced. The jury is still out on BPA. The precautionary principle isn’t always being used rationally.

  5. Rudy,

    I am an organic chemist and a parent who was also disappointed by the emotional tone of your recent editorial. You overstate your case by denigrating people with legitimate concerns re BPA and other chemicals as being ‘chemophobic enviromentalists’. Many of us do read the primary literature on this topic and have concerns, for example see Coleman et al (2003) QSAR & Combinatorial Science, Volume 22, Issue 1 (p 78-88). Furthermore your statement that the chemical industry and the precautionary principle are at odds is nothing short of incredible. Do you really think you are reassuring the public at large by insulting their intelligence? What are doing is further reinforcing the public’s image of an arrogant chemical industry that dismisses their concerns.

  6. The public at large doesn’t have intelligence to insult. They pre-formulate opinions on issues based on their personal beliefs and adhere to them religiously, regardless of what evidence may be presented that is contrary to their view (this happens to not matter because nobody reads the evidence anyways, on either side of the argument). Any suggestion that their belief is incorrect leads to cries of slander/libel and other assorted histrionics.

    In The Pipeline has an EXCELLENT blog entry that details just this sort of idiocy.

  7. well i personally think the enviromentalists are doing a good job

  8. I’m skeptical of most environmental claims about “bad chemicals” but these articles led me to give up canned foods while I was undergoing chemotherapy.