The global chemical industry annually produces about 6 billion pounds of bisphenol A (BPA), an integral component of a vast array of plastic products, generating at least $6 billion in annual sales. The value of BPA-based manufactured goods is probably incalculable. Environmental Working Group studies have found BPA in more than half the canned foods and beverages sampled from supermarkets across the U.S.
Soon after scientists Frederick Vom Saal and Wade Welshons found the first hard evidence that miniscule amounts of BPA caused irreversible changes in the prostates of fetal mice, a scientist from Dow Chemical Company showed up at the Missouri lab. He disputed the data and declared, as Vom Saal recalls, "We want you to know how distressed we are by your research."
"It was not a subtle threat," Vom Saal says. "It was really, really clear, and we ended up saying, threatening us is really not a good idea."
The Missouri scientists redoubled their investigations of BPA. Industry officials and scientist allies fired back, sometimes in nose-to-nose debates at scientific gatherings, sometimes more insidiously. "I heard [chemical industry officials] were making blatantly false statements about our research," says Welshons. "They were skilled at creating doubt when none existed."
The industry's increasingly noisy denials backfired. By the turn of the millennium, dozens of scientists were launching their own investigations of the chemical. But the chemical industry can be expected to fight aggressively against more regulation. Earlier this year, the industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat a California legislative proposal to ban BPA in food packaging. The Chemistry Council and allied companies and industry groups hired an army of lobbyists. Tactics included an industry email to food banks charging that a BPA ban would mean the end of distributions of canned goods for the poor.