BPA: The Grand Human Experiment

plastic bottlesIn the beginning, life formed in the sea. The phospho-lipid membranes of our cells wrapped themselves around primordial saltwater, enclosing water, salt, and other chemicals. Our blood today includes those chemicals as evolutionary remnants of our origins. In the last twenty years a new chemical has been added to our blood. Bisphenol A (BPA) now flows in the blood of nine out of 10 Americans, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical is manufactured worldwide at a rate of 7 billion pounds per year (13,000 pounds a minute) for us in plastics including CDs, eye-glass lenses, beverage cans, sports bottles, and baby bottles.

Is this safe? Will this miracle of modern chemistry cause unforeseen consequences? On September 16, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) committee tasked with determining the safety of BPA met, and spokesperson Laura Tarantino, head of the FDA's office of food additive safety said:

"Right now, our tentative conclusion is that it's safe, so we're not recommending any change in habits." -Yahoo News

The FDA bases this conclusion on reviews of scientific studies, and as an administrative agency concerned with the welfare of American citizens, I'd like to trust its findings. But regular Celsias readers will recognize this video discussing the possible health impacts of BPA.

In animal tests, Bisphenol A (BPA) has been shown to act like the hormone estrogen, lowering birth weights, damaging genetic material, and affecting growth and development of animals. BPA has further been linked in animals to diabetes, obesity, and cancer. But what about BPA in humans?

On the same day that Laura Tarantino gave her tentative reassurance that BPA is safe, a crucial report was  published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: the largest human study on BPA to date. The researchers collected data on a representative sample of 1,455 people. The group's urine was analyzed for BPA levels, and the individuals were asked about their health histories. Individuals with the highest levels of BPA in their blood were twice as likely to have diabetes and heart disease as those with the lowest levels of BPA.

Now this study is just a snap-shot in time, and it only establishes a correlation, not a causation. Just because high BPA occurs at the same time as diabetes and heart disease doesn't mean that BPA causes either of those diseases. There could be some third factor (soft-drink consumption?) causing both, or there could be no relation at all between the two. In order to determine causality, a long term study would have to be done, a study that could record many different factors effecting peoples' health.

But this correlation does mean something. It means there is a risk that this chemical causes significant harm to human beings. Common sense tells us we might not want to be ingesting this chemical - or feeding it to our babies through bottles, toys and pacifiers - until we've further looked into how BPA relates to our body chemistry. The FDA's failure to follow the common sense precautionary principle in this instance is a failure of the agency to "protect and promote" Americans' health.

The precautionary principle, a tenet of European Union Law, is a moral and political principle stating that in cases where actions might cause harm to people, those advocating the action have the burden to prove the action safe. This principle of informed prudence places the welfare and safety of people who might be affected by BPA above the possible benefits of using this compound. The precautionary principle tells us the level of harm caused to infants sucking on bottles or athletes chugging on Nalgenes ought to be established before we allow people to use the products.

Here's another way to look at the precautionary principle. When a new chemical is developed, its use is inherently an experiment. We test the chemical out to see what kinds of effects it has. Does it cause cancer (asbestos)? Does it cause holes in the ozone layer (CFCs)? Or is it a safe compound like glass or stainless steel? We can do this testing in any number of ways. We can test it out on animals, in a controlled environment, in a computer model, or in the open market. When we test chemicals in the open market, selling it to the public without full knowledge of its effects, we can easily analyze its effects twenty, thirty, and forty years later. When a generation of babies develops unusually high cancer rates or diabetes rates, then we'll have incontrovertible proof of the harm that BPA causes. Of course, it might be that babies raised sucking BPA into their bodies will be perfectly healthy.

The difference between the open market test and continued private testing is timing. Do we understand the chemical before or after it hits our homes? When chemicals are tested on the open market, we all become guinea pigs in an experiment we didn't sign up for. Count me out. Plastic companies and chemists can find someone else to experiment on, I'll be using my glass bottle.

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  • Posted on Oct. 17, 2008. Listed in:

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