The Science and Public Perception of Bisphenol-A

June 22, 2010

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Spend a moment on any consumer or parenting Web site, and you'll inevitably run into the topic of BPA. The compound Bisphenol-A is primarily used to make hard, clear, shatter-proof plastic and, as a result, is a common component in water bottles, baby bottles and plastic food storage containers. Additionally, it is present in the resins used to coat the interior of aluminum food cans.

It's also the reason why parents everywhere are hyperventilating in the aisles of Babies R' Us.

Bisphenol-A has been definitively identified as a human endocrine disruptor (a component that can mimic naturally occurring human hormones and their effects on the body). Some studies have linked BPA to obesity, attention deficit disorders, reduced thyroid function, breast and prostate cancers, heart and liver disease, pregnancy complications, infertility, declining male sexual function and more. Because BPA appears to affect human health most strongly at the development stage, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has taken the official stance that exposure to BPA is “of some concern” to fetal and infant development. The FDA, which originally took a position that ordinary exposure to BPA was not a health concern, has recently reversed that position and is currently "studying the matter."

While Bisphenol-A has been definitively identified as problematic to human health as early as the 1930s, there does not appear to be full scientific consensus about how much of the chemical is harmful, and how much individuals are exposed to in their daily use of plastics. There is some indication that BPA levels released into consumables are greater when the plastics or can linings are exposed to microwaves, hot water, harsh cleaning chemicals or highly acidic environments (think of a baby bottle in the dishwasher or a can of tomato sauce). The Endocrine Society, an international group of endocrinologists, has expressed an official opinion that what are today considered safe-consumption levels of the compound are too high and need to be revised downward.

But the question plastics manufacturers and the makers of consumables packaged in BPA-containing materials need to be asking themselves is...does it matter? Whether the science is good or bad (and there has been some very good science on the harmful effects of BPA), public perception – and wallets – are what count, and it's very hard to change minds, as historical precedent has shown.

Rather than cave in to mixed scientific results implicating high-fructose corn syrup (isoglucose) in a whole host of medical problems including diabetes, liver disease and obesity, the Corn Refiners Association fought back with a series of television commercials and print ads assuring consumers that the sweetener is no more harmful or fattening than sugar or honey when used in moderation. Consumers weren't buying the information (of course, it didn't help that a study of isoglucose performed several years ago found trace amounts of mercury in nine out of 20 samples). Consumers appear to be winning this battle: successful household brands such as Pepsi, Hunt's ketchup, Snapple and Gatorade have announced they are switching from the use of isoglucose in their products to plain, refined sugar. Use of isogluose in commercial products dropped 11 percent between 2003 and 2008; there is anecdotal evidence that when the figures for 2009 and 2010 are available, the decrease will be even more dramatic, and there is corresponding evidence that the sugar refining industry is beginning to see a windfall in favor of their product. (In fact, there are conspiracy theories that the so-called “bad news” about high fructose corn syrup has been deliberately circulated by sugar refiners in an attempt to win back market share.)

The Corn Refiners Association isn't the only group facing negative public perception in the face of questionable science. The artificial sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet) has been blamed for a frightening array of negative health consequences, including depression, leukemia, lymphoma and brain malignancies, though most properly conducted studies have failed to find any links. Terrifying e-mails and social network posts continue to claim that aspartame partially breaks down into methanol and formaldehyde during metabolic processing. While this is technically true, what the e-mails fail to disclose is that both methanol and formaldehyde are natural byproducts of human metabolism, with or without aspartame ingestion.

Yet, many consumer brands have caved in the face of consumer demand and abandoned the sweetener, often switching to the less controversial sucralose-based sweetener marketed as Splenda, which now owns 62 percent of the artificial sweetener market. (Insert your own conspiracy theories here.)

Many manufacturers – and governments -- aren't waiting for the scientific consensus on BPA to be decided. Baby bottle manufacturers are reformulating their products without BPA. Canada has taken the extraordinary step of banning the import, sale, and advertisement of baby bottles containing BPA. WalMart no longer sells any baby bottles, sippy cups, children's eating utensils, food storage containers or pacifiers containing the component. Sunoco, which actually produces BPA, has refused to sell the component to any manufacturer producing drinking and food containers for children under age three. The State of Minnesota has taken the most drastic step, banning the sale of children's products containing BPA as of January of this year. What's radical about Minnesota is that as of January of next year, the ban will apply to all retailers, not just those of children's products.

While both the FDA and the EPA have allocated large amounts of money to further study the health effects of BPA (both studies are ongoing), the plastics industry has undertaken a strong lobbying effort to fight the bans and present its own science showing that normal exposure levels are too low to be risky. But given the lack of success the Corn Refiners and the aspartame people had in fighting public perception of their products, I ask again: when consumers (and the parents of small children in particular) have made up their minds, does it really matter what the scientific consensus is?

– Tracey Schelmetic

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