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.
I often point out just how powerful and influential the pharmaceutical industry is. The global market for pharmaceuticals was worth more than $693 billion in 2007. But Big Pharma is easily dwarfed by the global chemistry industry, which lives somewhere in the $3 trillion-a-year-neighborhood.
About 6 billion pounds of Bisphenol A (BPA) is produced annually, generating at least $6 billion in annual sales alone.
BPA – which mimicks the sex hormone estradiol -- is a building block for polycarbonate plastics and tough epoxy resins. As I discussed earlier this week, BPA-containing plastic is so pervasive it shows up in many places you might not have considered, such as in the linings of canned goods, where it leaches into your food and drink.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found BPA in more than half of the canned foods and beverages sampled from supermarkets across the U.S.
Cans of infant formula have been shown to be some of the worst offenders; just one to three servings can contain BPA levels that have caused serious adverse effects in animal tests.
Dow Chemical – Roughnecks in Suits
As described in the article above, chemical companies like Dow are not above using threats and forceful intimidation when plain money doesn’t do the job. (Monsanto’s ruthless “seed police” are another giant swinging a big club, with a reputation for suing small farmers out of their homesteads.)
But this is not the first time Dow Chemical’s less than ethical tactics have been exposed.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has tried to get Dow to own up to its poisoning of the village of Bhopal for over two decades, and accuses the multinational of using strong-arm tactics to intimidate the habitants of Shinde Vasuli into submission to build another chemical experimentation facility near their Indian village.
In 2002, Dow Chemical interrupted internet use for thousands, and closed down hundreds of unrelated websites after intimidating Verio into shutting down the ISP of a critical parody website.
And more recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forced Mary Gade to quit her job as head of the EPA’s Midwest office after her interactions with Dow Chemical. Gade had been locked in a heated dispute with Dow about long-delayed plans to clean up dioxin-saturated soil that extends 50 miles beyond its Midland, Michigan plant. The company had been dumping the highly toxic and persistent chemical into local rivers for most of the last century.
In an interview on May 1, 2008, Gade said of her forced resignation: "There"s no question this is about Dow. I stand behind what I did and what my staff did. I"m proud of what we did."
These examples are just a few drops in a very large bucket.
BPA and Your Immune System
That low-level exposure to BPA can be hazardous to your health has been established (but hotly debated and denied by industry) for over 10 years. It’s just now reaching the tipping point.
According to Washington State University reproductive scientist Patricia Hunt, “exposure to low levels of BPA -- levels that we think are in the realm of current human exposure -- can profoundly affect both developing eggs and sperm.”
But fetuses and infants are not the only ones at risk. Researchers are also finding that BPA exposure can affect adults.
A study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2008, discovered that BPA promotes the development of Th2 cells in adulthood, and both Th1 and Th2 cells in prenatal stages, by reducing the number of regulatory T cells.
This could have a profound effect on your health as Th1 and Th2 are the two “attack modes” of your immune system.
Based on the type of invader, your immune system activates either Th1 or Th2 cells to get rid of the pathogen. Th1 (T Helper 1) attacks organisms that get inside your cells, whereas Th2 (T Helper 2) goes after extracellular pathogens; organisms that are found outside the cells in your blood and other body fluids.
When your Th2 are over-activated, your immune system will over-respond to toxins, allergens, normal bacteria and parasites, and under-respond to viruses, yeast, cancer, and intracellular bacteria, because as one system activates, the other is blocked.
FDA Favors Industry Science… Again!
Pressured by a growing number of health and consumer advocates, lawmakers and scientists, an FDA advisory panel met on September 15th to decide whether BPA should be reassessed in terms of food safety. If the answer had been yes, it could have put an end to BPA-laced food packaging.
It was not.
True to form, the U.S. FDA upheld their decision that BPA is safe and can remain in food packaging, including infant formula containers and baby bottles, despite the more than 100 independent studies linking the chemical to serious disorders in humans, including:
- Prostate cancer
- Breast cancer
- Early puberty
- Obesity, and
- Learning and behavioral problems
The Scientists & Engineers For America Action Fund Website said about the verdict:
The agency based their decision on two large multigenerational studies funded by the American Plastics Council (part of the American Chemistry Council) and the Society of the Plastics Industry.
As for the large body of literature on low dose effects of BPA that originally raised concerns about the chemical’s ability to disrupt reproductive, neurological and metabolic development and function at levels of exposure within the range found in humans, the FDA broadly found these studies to be inadequate or of limited utility in evaluating safety.
By relying solely on the industry-funded studies, the agency reaffirmed the trade associations’ ability to control what is considered to be reliable, credible science.
Where to Find BPA-Free Products
Clearly our regulators are either asleep at the wheel, or too busy planning how not to lose their hard earned bribes in a crashing stock market.
Fortunately, some companies are taking note of consumer demand and are increasingly offering products that don‘t contain BPA.
Personally, I too am doing everything I can to avoid this menacing chemical, and will be offering glass water bottles for sale later this year. (They have neoprene sleeves to protect them from breaking.) Glass is the safest and most inert way to store your water, and far better than ANY plastic.
Here are several other resources where you can buy various types of BPA-free products:
- Amazon.com‘s BPA-free section lists water bottles, baby bottles, and sippy cups.
- Rubbermaid says that some of its food storage containers and water bottles contain BPA, while others do not.
- Nalgene now offers BPA-free water bottles.
- Brita, which makes water filtration products, says that its pitchers and filters don‘t contain BPA.
- SC Johnson, which makes Saran brand wraps and Ziploc bags and containers, says that it doesn‘t use BPA in its products.
- The Children‘s Health Environmental Coalition offers tips for how to spot plastic household products with and without BPA.
- Consumer Reports describes its BPA test results and provides advice on choosing safe plastics.
- The Z Recommends blog posted an updated guide in February that lists children‘s feeding products that don‘t contain BPA.
- BPA-free products have even appeared on eBay.