The fight to get bisphenol A (BPA) out of our kitchens took a hit on Friday, when the Food and Drug Administration declined to ban the controversial chemical from food packaging. The FDA rejected a petition from the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), but also said it will continue to investigate health concerns linked to the chemical.
"Is this a major setback? It's an outrage and extreme disappointment," says Mike Schade of the advocacy group Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
BPA, a synthetic compound that mimics estrogen, is used to harden polycarbonate plastic and to make protective epoxy resin linings for cans. Plastics marked PC, "other" or number 7 may contain BPA. Studies have shown that BPA can leach out of packaging and into foods, especially with acidic contents like tomatoes.
In an email this morning, Schade told L.A. Weekly: "It's clear FDA has stuck their head in the sand and ignored the growing body of scientific evidence that suggests BPA is harmful to children's health. BPA, a synthetic sex hormone, has no place in canned food. The FDA must take immediate action to eliminate exposure to BPA in canned foods. In the meantime, we're pleased to see that manufacturers and retailers are beginning to take proactive action to phase out BPA."
The chemical has been in the U.S. food chain for more than 50 years, which explains why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found BPA in the urine of 93% of 2,517 adults and children tested during 2003-2004. According to the CDC report: "CDC scientists found BPA in the urine of nearly all of the people tested, which indicates widespread exposure to BPA in the U.S. population."
Numerous studies have raised concerns about links between BPA and breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, according to the NRDC, which in 2008 asked federal regulators to ban the chemical.
The NRDC released a statement on Friday from Dr. Sarah Janssen, senior scientist in its public health program: "BPA is a toxic chemical that has no place in our food supply. We believe FDA made the wrong call. The agency has failed to protect our health and safety."
Janssen's statement called the FDA "out of step with scientific and medical research. This illustrates the need for a major overhaul of how the government protects us against dangerous chemicals."
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Consumer demand and some state laws have pushed companies to take BPA out of products for babies and young children, such as bottles, sippy cups and infant formula. But there are other avenues of exposure, including dental sealants, some plastic household items, some water coolers delivered to homes and offices, most canned food linings and some cash register receipt paper, which is coated with the chemical.
Nearly all U.S. grocery stores (including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods) now offer a confusing mash-up of products with and without BPA, so it's best to contact a company's customer relations department for questions about specific items.
One problem the food industry faces is developing safe alternatives to BPA. Dr. Megan Schwarzman, a family physician and research scientist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, told L.A. Weekly this morning in an email: "There is a broader issue at play here as well that I think it's critical to bring into the conversation. While many manufacturers have switched out of BPA (and market 'BPA-free' products), the substitutes are often close chemical relatives such as BPS (Bisphenol S) or BPF (Bisphenol F). And there's little reason to suspect these compounds are any safer than BPA."
Schwarzman added: "We need to remove BPA from as many uses as possible, as soon as possible, but we must simultaneously ask for information on the chemical's substitutes. And wherever possible, we should look to replacement materials that don't simply rely on another chemical whose safety is unproven."