Industry reacts to Consumer Reports' BPA report

Consumer Reports News: November 06, 2009 02:21 PM

Consumer Reports' recent article on the presence of Bisphenol A in canned food drew widespread interest after it was published this past week. It also quickly drew critical comments from industry groups representing companies that manufacture or use BPA, a chemical whose safety is currently being reassessed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The groups took exception to some parts of the report that found nearly all of the 19 name-brand canned foods we tested contained this chemical, which is used in the linings of most food and beverage cans. They did not dispute the test findings of the BPA levels we measured in canned food. Rather, the discussion focused on our risk assessment of the effects of BPA, which was based on the scientific literature that has become available over the past 20 years.
Here's a sampling of those reactions, along with a more detailed discussion of some of the research involved in the debate:
1. The American Chemistry Council issued a press release contending that our experts' recommendations, which include calling for a ban on the use of BPA in all materials that come in contact with food, is "inconsistent with the conclusions of expert regulatory bodies worldwide, all of which have confirmed that BPA exposure levels are low and well within safety standards."

That is exactly the issue. As our story makes clear, food safety experts at Consumers Union believe federal regulatory guidelines—which are the same as those set by the European Food Safety Authority—are outdated and fail to adequately protect consumers. The FDA's own scientific advisory board also concluded that the agency's assessment of BPA's safety is inadequate. Hundreds of scientific studies have shown harm in animal studies from extremely low levels of BPA—levels that are ten to twenty thousand times lower than what the FDA considered as the basis of its safety assessment in 1988. And even some human studies show a link between elevated BPA levels and harmful effects such as diabetes and cardiovascular risk. Our test results show that consumers may be exposed to potentially harmful levels of BPA that could be reached through a few or multiple servings of the canned foods we tested.
2. The North American Metal Packaging Alliance released a similar public statement.  It cited a recently published study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which the can industry trade group says provides "strong new scientific evidence" that exposure to BPA at levels found in our test results is safe.

It is not surprising that the authors did not find effects from BPA because this study used a specific type of rat (Long-Evans) that has been previously shown to be insensitive or unresponsive to low-dose exposures to BPA and even typical birth-control dosages of synthetic estrogen, which was used as a control in the experiment. The insensitivity to both was confirmed again in this study. In other, more estrogenic-sensitive lab animals, BPA has been shown to cause adverse effects at BPA dose levels used in this study.
3. A blog posted by Trevor Butterworth, online editor of Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), questioned the scientific evidence used in our risk assessments. STATS says it is a non-profit, non-partisan  organization that acts as "a resource for journalists and policy makers on major scientific issues and controversies." In his blog, Butterworth claimed that studies we cited as evidence of harm from BPA at low doses are irrelevant because they involved exposing lab animals to BPA via injection rather than orally.

In studies using adult lab animals, injecting BPA results in levels that are similar or slightly higher than those seen after the chemicals are administered orally, making those studies relevant. And a comprehensive study of the metabolism of BPA in newborn lab animals showed that there was no difference in the levels of free BPA based on the route of administration (oral versus injection). This suggests that for newborns, who are especially vulnerable to BPA's health risks, the route of exposure matters even less than in adults.

It's not the first time Butterworth has come to the defense of the BPA industry.  Earlier this year he also harshly criticized a prize-winning series of articles about BPA's health risks by reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  The Milwaukee newspaper recently published a follow-up story describing a public relations blitz  by the BPA industry that "uses many of the same tactics—and people—the tobacco industry used in its decades-long fight against regulation." 

The story includes a graph mapping a web of potential conflicts of interest in the battle over BPA and noted that STATS is affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs, "a group which was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco." Tobacco lobbyists had a keen interest in the government's assessment of BPA because of concerns that a ban on the chemical would affect cigarette filters and plastic packaging, according to the newspaper account.

Consumer Reports examined STATS'  tax returns for  2005 through 2007, which confirm that relationship,  with the 2007 return stating that salary costs for STATS are shared with the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Other documents Consumer Reports has examined show STATS also has received funding from ExxonMobil, a major producer of benzene, one of the components used to manufacture BPA. ExxonMobil also makes a plastic food packaging film containing BPA.

The influence of industry over decisions about BPA's safety and regulation is also detailed in a fascinating new report " The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A ‘Safety'", published this week in the American Journal of Public Health.

Tracing the chemical's history from its commercialization starting in the 1950s by producers such as General Electric, Shell Chemical, Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide through the present, the report notes that even though the government still adheres to a 20-year-old safety standard, some retailers and even BPA producers such as Sunoco now are responding to mounting concerns about the chemical's safety. Six baby bottle manufacturers have announced that they are removing BPA from their products and Sunoco is asking its business customers to provide written confirmation that the BPA it sells them will not be used in food containers intended for children under the age of three. 
—Andrea Rock, Senior Editor
—Urvashi Rangan, PhD., Technical Policy Director, Consumers Union

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