BPA Regulatory Reform Moves Glacially Slow
Pregnant Women Should Not Wait to Protect Fetuses
Mothers of infants and toddlers can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that BPA (bisphenol-A), an estrogen hormone-mimicking endocrine disruptor, was banned nationwide from baby bottles and sippy cups last year and from infant formula containers just months ago.
For decades, BPA has been a key component of both polycarbonate baby bottles & cups and the resin lining of most canned goods, including infant formula. BPA can migrate from the packaging into the contents. Literally hundreds of studies in lab animals and humans have linked BPA to such diverse medical problems as breast and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, miscarriage, low birth weight, reproductive and sexual dysfunction, and altered cognitive and behavioral development.
However, fetal exposure to BPA is far from a thing of the past, as pregnant women – and hence their fetuses – are still routinely exposed to BPA from canned foods & beverages and reusable plastic bottles, as well as thermal cash register receipts. Unfortunately, there seems little chance the federal government will step in any time soon to limit pregnant women’s exposure, even though scientists who study the health effects of BPA say there is more than enough scientific evidence to warrant it.
The Breast Cancer Fund (BCF), a non-profit dedicated to eliminating environmental causes of breast cancer, agrees. In a Sept. 2013 report titled “Disrupted Development: the Dangers of Prenatal BPA Exposure,” BCF summarized the latest research showing that exposure to BPA early in development sets the stage for diseases in adulthood. The organization’s “Cans, Not Cancer” campaign is focused on protecting pregnant women by pressuring manufacturers and policy makers to eliminate BPA from all food cans: Dietary intake is thought to be the greatest source of human exposure.
Many other groups are also clamoring for restrictions on BPA. For example, Environmental Working Group and a partner organization Keep-A-Breast just listed BPA in their dirty dozen most dangerous endocrine disruptors common in consumer products.
A look below at how federal BPA regulatory reform is stuck in quicksand explains why tighter restrictions on BPA in consumer products won’t likely happen until consumers demand it. In the meanwhile, health advocacy groups want the public to know anyone can minimize exposure to BPA by making informed consumer choices.
National Chemical Policy
The antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), which charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with protecting the public from dangerous chemicals, nonetheless gives EPA almost no power to impose restrictions on the 60,000 chemicals, including BPA, which were originally grandfathered in with no EPA testing.
Even now, TSCA allows new chemicals to enter the marketplace with little or no safety testing. Just over 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in commerce today have been required to undergo testing, and only five have been banned.
Widespread cries for chemical policy reform has finally produced a bipartisan-backed Senate bill aimed at modernizing TSCA by requiring EPA to identify, test the safety of, and impose appropriate restrictions on the riskier chemicals in its register (Chemical Safety Improvement Act). For the first time, the chemical industry, which has squelched previous pushes for TSCA reform, is generally voicing support for the bill as long as industry has a hand in amending it. This shift reflects the increasing chaos industry envisions as more states join the dozens of state and local governments already implementing their own chemical safety reforms.
However, many environmental health groups, spear-headed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, are withholding support because the bill pre-empts tougher restrictions passed by individual states, effectively weakening regional regulations on substances like BPA. Also, companies could still withhold the identity of chemicals in their products from the public.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates BPA too as an “indirect food additive” that leaches into foods from can linings and polycarbonate packaging. But, FDA has been anything but a leader in protecting the public from BPA. It imposed a national BPA ban in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012 only after manufacturers had already responded to public pressure by voluntarily removed BPA from those products and after 11 states had implemented their own bans. Similarly, four states had banned BPA from infant formula packaging before FDA followed suit in July, 2013.
Public pressure is even now nudging industry away from using BPA in reusable drink bottles designed for adults and older children, though the FDA has given no sign of intention to act on this issue.
Science and Government at Odds
Human exposure to BPA is widespread, with over 90 percent of adults testing positive. Moreover, BPA was detected in every sample in a recent study of fetal umbilical cord blood from pregnant women in California, with over one-third showing levels higher or comparable to those associated with developmental problems in animal studies.
The government’s foot-dragging on addressing exposure in pregnant women stems in part from an out-dated model for determining the toxicity of a substance, designed before the term “endocrine disruptor” was even coined. That model assumes a “monotonic” relationship between dose and response, meaning that very low doses have negligible impact and negative effects appear and worsen as the dose goes up.
However, an enormous body of research, pioneered by University of Missouri developmental biologist Frederick vom Saal in the late 1990s, indicates that BPA behaves differently. Administered to pregnant animals, BPA produces more developmental havoc and adulthood diseases in the offspring when doses are below the government’s safety cut-off, probably because the body is designed to be sensitive to minute levels of natural hormones like estrogens.
Vom Saal and other BPA experts have been very vocal in their view that the government should be more proactive in protecting pregnant women and their fetuses.
The FDA claims to be continually reviewing the avalanche of recent low-dose studies, but in 2012 concluded that “the scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe.” However, a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program stated there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at current human exposures to BPA.”
California Inches Forward
California’s own ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups just took effect in July, but the state is not among the handful that has also prohibited BPA in infant formula packaging. And, Connecticut stands alone so far in prohibiting BPA-containing cash register receipts.
Proposition 65 is California’s “right to know” law, passed by voters in 1986 and requiring warning labels alerting consumers to products that contain possible carcinogens or reproductive toxicants. The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) added BPA as a reproductive toxicant to the Prop 65 list in April 2013 but removed it just six days later because a lawsuit was filed in response by the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association. OEHHA’s chief counsel states that the judge involved felt BPA should be delisted until the case is decided, which could be a while.
However, BPA is likely to be targeted also under California’s new Safer Consumer Products regulations which took effect October 1. Instead of the piecemeal approach of banning single chemicals in given products (like BPA in baby bottles), the state will select classes of products, like food packaging or nail polish, and make manufacturers responsible for analyzing whether replacement of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives is possible.
This new approach is an outgrowth of the Green Chemistry Law passed during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship. The first list of products to be examined might not be finalized for a year, however.
How to Protect Yourself
Groups like BCF are urging the public, especially pregnant women, not to wait for industry or government to act, but to adopt practical habits to avoid unnecessary risk from BPA.
Foremost is electing to eat meals made from fresh ingredients in lieu of canned foods. A 2011 study from BCF and Silent Spring Institute documented an average 60 percent drop in urinary BPA levels when typical American families avoided canned foods (and eating out) for just three days. But, when canned items are needed, reach for brands that claim to have already moved either away from BPA-containing can linings &/or to glass jars – Eden Organics, Amy’s Kitchen and Annie’s Homegrown, to name a few.
Also avoid eating or heating foods in plastics. Avoid especially those labelled with the plastic recycling code #7 which includes polycarbonate plastics. Some pliable PVC products (#3) also contain BPA. Use glass or stainless steel containers for storing foods.
Minimize contact with cash register receipts, and wash hands before eating to eliminate BPA residues.
Lastly, keep the pressure on mainstream food companies like Campbell’s Soup, Heinz and Nestle which claim to be working toward eliminating BPA from all canned foods. The domino effect that will move industry and eventually government begins with the public.
Photos sourced from Wikimedia Commons