How Lobbyists Are Spinning Weak Science to Defend BPA

They're arguing that a new study shows canned foods to be safe, even when lined with BPA. The problem? That's not what the study says.

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The latest skirmish in the battle over bisphenol A (BPA) -- the synthetic chemical used to make polycarbonate plastics, to make the epoxy resins that line food and beverage cans, and as developers in thermal receipt papers -- came last week when the Breast Cancer Fund, an Oakland-based non-profit, released the results of its testing for BPA in canned food marketed to children (PDF). The report found BPA in Campbell's Disney Princess Cool Shapes, Toy Story Fun Shapes Pasta in chicken broth, Spaghettios With Meatballs, Earth's Best Organic Elmo Noodlemania Soup, Chef Boyardee Whole Grain Pasta Mini ABCs &123s With Meatballs, and Annie's Homegrown Organic Cheesy Ravioli at levels that ranged between 13 and 114 parts per billion, levels that have been shown to be biologically active, meaning they're high enough to interact with and affect our cells.

In response, the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA), a trade association representing the food-and-beverage metal-packaging industry, fired off a press release citing a study ostensibly showing that there's no health risk from BPA exposure through canned food.

That such a flawed study would be published and its findings so misrepresented has outraged prominent members of the scientific community.

"This comprehensive, first-of-its-kind clinical exposure study, funded entirely by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), offers definitive evidence that even the highest exposure levels of BPA from canned foods and beverages did not lead to detectable amounts in the human blood stream," said NAMPA. "The EPA-funded study emphatically showed there is not a health risk from BPA exposure in canned foods because of how the body processes and eliminates the compound from the body, in children as well as adults," said NAMPA chairman Dr. John M. Rost in the press release.

Trouble is, this study -- by Teeguarden et al. -- which was indeed funded by the EPA and conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and published in the September issue of Toxicological Sciences, shows nothing of the kind. No children were included in the study, and researchers did not measure how much BPA was in the food the subjects ate so there's no way to tell if the BPA in their systems came from that food. But why should we care?

BPA, which has long been identified as an endocrine-disrupting chemical, has been linked in numerous studies to health effects that include adverse impacts on developmental, metabolic, reproductive, neurological, cardiovascular, and other systems. Childhood exposure is a particular concern because early life exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals can set the stage for later life health disorders, including diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.

Concern over these effects have led ten U.S. states and several local governments to bar BPA from children's reusable food and beverage containers, and prompted major manufacturers of baby bottles and toddlers' sippy-cups to switch to alternate materials. Canada has added BPA to its list of toxic substances, Japan took BPA out of can linings and receipt papers in the 1990s, and China and Malaysia have now instituted bans on BPA in baby bottles, but the U.S. federal government does not bar the use of BPA in such products. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policies have been inching in that direction, though.

In 2010, after having been sent back to the drawing board by its science advisory board in 2008, the FDA issued a policy statement that supports a shift toward stronger regulation of BPA and that supports efforts to find safe alternatives to BPA for infant formula and other food and beverage can liners. Meanwhile, the EPA has issued an "action plan" for BPA that could lead to more oversight on its use.

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Elizabeth Grossman's work has appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, The Pump Handle, and other publications. Her books include Chasing Molecules and High Tech Trash.

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