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Chemical Companies Borrow from Tobacco Playbook to Stymie BPA Regulation

Bisphenol A is everywhere—in our cell phones, laptops, eyeglasses, baby bottles, and countless other products containing the plastic polycarbonate. And because of American manufacturers’ panic over “excessive regulation,” BPA and tens of thousands of other chemicals found in everyday products have undergone no government safety reviews. As investigative reporter Mark Schapiro points out in Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, the official position of federal watchdog groups in the US is “safe until proven otherwise,” a perversion of “innocent until proven guilty”—good if you’re an individual accused of a crime, not so good if you’re a multinational giving a bunch of people cancer. Or diabetes. Or autism.

In this article from business magazine Fast Company,one observation jumped out at me: “Of the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects at levels similar to human exposure. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects.” Funny, that.

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Surely you’ve heard about BPA by now. It’s everywhere. Some 7 billion pounds of it were produced in 2007. It’s in adhesives, dental fillings, and the linings of food and drink cans. It’s a building block for polycarbonate, a near-shatterproof plastic used in cell phones, computers, eyeglasses, drinking bottles, medical devices, and CDs and DVDs. It’s also in infant-formula cans and many clear plastic baby bottles. Studies have shown that it can leach into food and drink, especially when containers are heated or damaged. More than 90% of Americans have some in their bodies.

BPA is dangerous to human health. Or it is not. That’s according to two government reports in recent months that came to opposite conclusions. The National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, reported in September 2008 “some concern” that BPA harms the human brain and reproductive system, especially in babies and fetuses. Yet less than a month earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that “at current levels of exposure” BPA is safe. Even after the FDA’s own science board questioned the rigor of this analysis in late October, the agency didn’t change its position.

Let’s take a moment to ponder this absurd dichotomy. How could our nation’s health watchdogs reach such divergent conclusions? Are we being unnecessarily scared by the NTP? Or could the FDA be sugarcoating things? What exactly is going on?

We went on a journey to find out. What we learned was shocking. To some degree, the BPA controversy is a story about a scientific dispute. But even more, it’s about a battle to protect a multibillion-dollar market from regulation. In the United States, industrial chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise. As a result, the vast majority of the 80,000 chemicals registered to be used in products have never undergone a government safety review. Companies are left largely to police themselves.

Just five companies make BPA in the United States: Bayer, Dow, Hexion Specialty Chemicals, SABIC Innovative Plastics (formerly GE Plastics), and Sunoco. Together, they bring in more than $6 billion a year from the compound. Each of them referred questions about BPA’s safety to their Arlington, Virginia — based trade association, the American Chemistry Council. “Our view would be, Well, no, there isn’t anything to be concerned about,” says Steve Hentges, the council’s point person on BPA. “In a sense, you could have ‘some concern’ about just about anything.”

Perhaps. But consider this: Of the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects at levels similar to human exposure. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects.

Of the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects.

It is the industry-funded studies that have held sway among regulators. This is thanks largely to a small group of “product defense” consultants — also funded by the chemical industry — who have worked to sow doubt about negative effects of BPA by using a playbook that borrows from the wars over tobacco, asbestos, and other public-health controversies. A secretive Beltway public-relations consultant. A government contractor funded by the industries it was hired to assess. A Harvard research center with a history of conflicts of interest. These have been the key actors in how the science of BPA has been interpreted by the government. And it is their work, as much as the science itself, that has stymied regulation.

Read the whole article here.


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Food & Drink Sale! Save 35% on all Food & Drink books through August 1st

Here at Chelsea Green Publishing, we believe that it matters where our food comes from and how it is grown because a healthy food system is key to ensuring a resilient, sustainable, and healthy future for all of us. We’ve put ALL ourfood & drink books on sale for 35% off — but hurry it […] Read More

Recipe: Ginger-Apricot Mead

With reader interest in Sandor Ellix Katz’s Ginger Beer recipe, here’s another ginger concoction for summertime sipping: Ginger-Apricot Mead. Jereme Zimmerman, author of Make Mead Like a Viking, shares his recipe below, along with tips on sourcing local honey to make mead. When Jereme was in North Carolina earlier this year to present at the […] Read More

How-To: Foraging for Flavors to Fire Up Your Grill

If you love grilling, you are certain to know that various woods impart delicious smoky flavors to grilled meat, fish, and vegetables. In this excerpt from The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, author and self-described culinary alchemist Pascal Baudar offers foraging tips for finding the best woods and barks to add flavor to anything you toss on […] Read More
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