Monday, January 18, 2010

FDA Reversal on BPA Safety Ruling

This past Friday, the FDA announced a recent study had raised “some concern” about the safety of Bisphenol A and its impact on the health and development of our children. This finding was in direct opposition to their position in 2008 that the chemical was safe.

As introduced by Coca Colo, I am a scientist. But even with a PhD in chemistry, I find it is difficult to navigate the latest health and safety warnings and keep on top of which foods and consumer products I should or should not be using.

Recently, I have been following debate over the safety of Bisphenol A (BPA). I am constantly surprised that people have missed this news story—even a chemist I used to work with was not familiar with it. BPA is a chemical that used in the production of plastics. As I mentioned, the FDA has now expressed concern about BPA, but others have been worried much earlier. Let me give you a brief history.

I’m sure we all remember the Nalgene craze. Everyone I knew had one. Made from polycarbonate, they were amazingly durable. I even remember one of my friends telling me a story about how he had thrown his out of a window a couple of stories up to see if it would survive (it did). It was marketed as the environmentally responsible way to enjoy water. However, little did the average consumer know, BPA was used in production of the polycarbonate (For the record, Nalgene now makes BPA-free water bottles).

Shortly after the fad took hold, information began popping up that called into question the safety of these containers that were marketed as the environmentally conscious choice. These bottles we were using to avoid the excess waste created by drinking bottled water contained a chemical that would leach into the water we were drinking.

In 2007, the Environmental Working Group conducted research studying the levels of BPA in consumer products and showed that the chemical was everywhere. From our water bottles to our baby bottles to our canned foods, we were being exposed to this chemical regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status. They also called into question the level at which BPA became a health risk.

To put this in context, the impact of a specific class of chemicals on public health is a rising concern, and BPA is a part of this class. These endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, mimic the natural hormones in our body, and as a result, interfere with your endocrine system. EDCs are able bind to the natural receptors in our body and turn hormone function on and off. Since many biological processes are carefully regulated by our endocrine system, it is not very surprising that there is a growing body of evidence linking EDCs to increases we are seeing in cancer rates and developmental problems in children.

In 2008, the FDA conducted a study of the health impacts of BPA in response to the concern, but declared the chemical to be safe for kids and adults. But the Committee on Energy and Commerce, was not satisfied with the study and ruling, which was in opposition to a growing body of research suggesting otherwise, and urged the FDA to reconsider this ruling. The FDA agreed.

According to the update on the FDA website about the new BPA studies:

“…on the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.”

Subtle effects? Why would we want to expose ourselves to products that alter they way we develop even in a subtle way? At this point we have no way to predict the long-term consequences of these slight changes. That will take years of monitoring the development of children who have shown these effects.

What do you think? Should the FDA act now to regulate over this potential threat? Or should they wait until they have a thorough understanding of what happens to our children 20 years down the road?

Here are some tips to reduce your exposure to BPA at home:

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