09 May 12 Why the FDA hasn’t banned potentially toxic BPA (yet)
His name was Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim and his contemporaries called him Paracelsus, but history knows him by this title: the Father of Toxicology. Paracelsus was a 16th century Swiss physician who profoundly influenced our understanding of how chemicals affect the body.
His dictum, “The dose makes the poison,” helped explain that even toxic substances could be safe as long as the amount ingested remained below a certain threshold. It’s still a major principle of modern toxicology, and it’s why the FDA and other government safety offices fight with industry to find that safe level below which the toxins that are part of modern life can be tolerated.
But as science advances, we can detect smaller and smaller doses of chemicals in the human body — as small as one part per trillion, or about one-twentieth of a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biomonitoring survey found that Americans have traces of 212 environmental chemicals in their bodies — including so-called endocrine disrupters like bisphenol-A (BPA), which may have a major impact on human health even though the dose is barely perceptible.
But our ability to detect chemicals outpaces our ability to understand exactly what exposure means for us — which puts regulatory agencies in a tight spot, especially when the chemicals in question are widely used in modern life and are hard to replace.
That’s exactly where the FDA finds itself with BPA. The chemical has been used since the 1940s to harden polycarbonate plastics and to manufacture epoxy resin, employed in the lining of food and beverage containers, among countless other products. BPA is good at what it does — that’s why some 2.7 billion kg of the chemical are produced globally each year.
But BPA is also a synthetic estrogen — meaning it can mimic or disrupt the effect of that hormone — and both animal and some human studies have associated BPA exposure with health and developmental problems, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, early puberty, even learning disabilities.
That’s despite the fact that human beings are exposed to such tiny amounts of BPA — perhaps 0.2 micrograms per kg of bodyweight per day for adults, well below the 24-year-old federal safety threshold of 50 micrograms per kg. If BPA is a threat to human health — and many scientists believe it is — the damage is being done in microscopic doses.
So when the evidence is scary but uncertain, what will the federal government do? When it comes to BPA, the answer is not much…..
On March 30, the FDA announced that it was rejecting a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to ban BPA from food packaging. The environmental group had filed the petition in 2008, asking the agency to ban BPA from food-contact uses — and when the agency failed to reply, NRDC filed a lawsuit last year that forced it to decide by the end of March.
The FDA declined, arguing that the studies presented by the NRDC and its allies were too thin and too small to be conclusive, with too little research done on humans.
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