The difficulties of doing research on low-dose chemicals -- and the
food industry's insistence that such doses are safe -- explains the FDA's
reluctance to act.
Some examples illustrate the problem.
Some studies suggest that aspartame might cause cancer in rats when
consumed at levels typical of diet soft drinks, as well as other
problems. But researchers performing better controlled studies have
given aspartame a clean bill of health.
Despite public concerns, the FDA's assessment of the evidence "finds
no reason to alter its previous conclusion that aspartame is safe as a
general purpose sweetener in food."
These have been considered a possible cause of hyperactivity in
children since the 1970s. Some studies show improved behavior among
children placed on additive-free diets. But behavior is difficult to
judge objectively, and even controlled studies gave mixed results.
A recent study funded by the British Food Standards Agency is
typical. It found most children to be unaffected by removing additives.
But a small percentage seemed to get better.
The FDA can only conclude that there is not enough science to decide whether food dyes cause hyperactivity.
BPA (Bisphenol A)
BPA is a component of hard plastic used to make baby bottles and food
and beverage cans. It is also an endocrine disrupter. Last year, the
FDA concluded that BPA is safe at current exposure levels.
At the same time, the FDA advised children and pregnant women to
reduce exposure to BPA. It advised the infant formula and soda
industries to find ways to replace it.
The California Legislature has passed AB1319 banning BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups; it's awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.
Recent studies raise concerns about BPA's effects on the brain and
behavior of fetuses, infants and young children, and on cancer, obesity
and infertility in adults. Some studies suggest that exposure to BPA is
higher than previously estimated. Just last week, the Breast Cancer Fund
released a study finding BPA in canned foods designed for children.
Studies by university
scientists tend to find harm from BPA at low doses, whereas those by
government regulatory agencies and the food industry do not. In the
absence of compelling science, regulators have two choices: exercise the
"precautionary principle" and ban the chemical until it can be proven
safe, or approve it until it can be shown to be harmful.
The United States and European safety agencies - and the food industry, of course - prefer the latter approach.
Research clearly demonstrates that pesticides harm farmworkers
exposed to high doses. But recent studies report slightly lower IQ
levels in children born to urban women with higher blood levels of
pesticides. Although these studies did not control for socioeconomic and
other variables that might influence IQ, they raise the possibility
that even low levels might be harmful.