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Expert witnesses fail to acquit BPA in the court of public opinion
Last month, Canada became the first – and still the only – country to formally declare bisphenol A (BPA) a toxin, listing the organic compound as hazardous both to human health and to the environment.
BPA is an endocrine disruptor that can mimic the effects of estrogen. In vivo studies have linked even very low concentrations with permanent changes to the brains and reproductive systems of laboratory animals.
Two years ago, Canada announced its intention to ban BPA from baby bottles, as did several US states. In the event, they were largely pre-empted by the industry, as the shower of negative publicity surrounding BPA made it commercially nonviable.
But BPA hardly went away. In fact, it’s ubiquitous. It may be found in cellphone casings, cash register receipts, and all sorts of packaging, including and especially canned food. It’s an extremely common ingredient in the epoxy linings that cover the metal on the can’s inside.
This, most experts agree, is the number one source of human exposure. In Canada, the age group with the highest detected levels of BPA is teenagers, followed by younger kids. These are also the age groups most likely to eat canned foods.
This month, a panel of international experts sat down in Ottawa to get to the bottom of the issue of BPA in food. The meeting was sponsored by the World Health Organization, with support from the FDA, Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority.
Their conclusion? That canned food is indeed the main avenue by which we absorb BPA … and it’s not a problem. Their modeling shows that BPA coming in through food consumption matches the quantity going out through urine. BPA does not significantly accumulate in the body, says WHO, and therefore action to remove it from food packaging would be “premature”.
Why premature? Because, as WHO acknowledges, there are still several studies suggesting adverse health effects even at very low levels, and finding worse overall health in people who work around BPA, for instance in canneries. Some of the best quality studies have still to report their findings, so the WHO wants to keep its options open.
But WHO also didn’t want to hurt industry by causing a public health scare before it knew the facts, so it held the meeting behind closed doors and made participants sign confidentiality agreements.
This approach may have backfired. Several manufacturers, apparently unable to stand the strain of not knowing, pre-empted the conference’s findings by announcing plans to remove BPA from their products while the experts were still deliberating. Among these was the world’s largest, Nestlé.
But Nestlé only said it would remove BPA from its US products – though many such products will undoubtedly find their way onto Canadian shelves. Different solutions might apply in different parts of the world, said the company, depending partly on local “cultural sensitivities” and consumer preferences. In other words, where the public shows no sign of caring about potential toxicity, manufacturers are unlikely to worry about it either.
Posted by David Elkins and others at 12:06 PM