The New Yorker on Bisphenol A: How Bad is It?
The New Yorker has published a quite thorough piece on the issue of Bisphenol A, the agent that the article's author, Jerome Groopman, says "may be among the world's most vilified chemicals." Bisphenol A (BPA), which is a nearly ubiquitous chemical used in thousands of plastic items and other products, is certainly one of the most vilified substances on the pages of TreeHugger, and has been linked to impotence, endocrine disruption, mood and attention disorders, and a veritable rainbow of ills. In fact it's become trendy to avoid BPA in water bottles, food cans, and the like.While we're happy to see the public asking tougher questions about this potentially nefarious chemical, it's refreshing to hear Groopman take a somewhat more balanced look at things. Understanding the effects of chemical agents on the complex human system is, afterall, a highly tricky process:
"There is an inherent uncertainty in determining which substances are safe and which are not and when their risks outweigh their benefits. Toxicity studies are difficult, because BPA and other, similar chemicals can have multiple effects on the body. Moreover, we are exposed to scores of them in a lifetime, and their effects in combination or in sequence might be very different from what they would be in isolation."
Groopman also pulls back the lens to inspect the major long-term studies that have focused on substances like BPA and phthalates (the 2nd trendiest chemical to hate).
He follows the work of Frederica Perera, who is overseeing one of the largest and longest studies of mother/child pairs, searching for chemical transmission.
We also get to hear from a rep of the American Council on Science and Health, an industry group. The rep says that fears of BPA are overblown: "Some environmental activists emotionally manipulate parents, making them feel that the ones they love the most, their children, are in danger," and that what the country needs is a national psychiatrist.
But the article also refers to non-industry funded experts who also feel the fear is overblown, and that BPA and phthalate research is turning into a leach on government research dollars due to overblown fears.
We recently wrote about a new study about BPA in food cans that has generated some sharp attention, bolstering calls for the elimination of BPA. Though as Lloyd Alter points out, news about BPA in food cans is not new (see his pointers for avoiding Bisphenol A).
The upshot: the debate is certainly not over. Though research certainly does show strong indication that BPA is harmful on a multiplicity of levels:
"Recent animal studies have shown that, even at very low levels, BPA can cause changes that may lead to cancer in the prostate gland and in breast tissue. It is also linked to disruption in brain chemistry and, in female rodents, accelerated puberty. Japanese scientists found that high levels of BPA were associated with polycystic ovary syndrome, a leading cause of impaired fertility"
And since nearly 93% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their systems (and kids between 6 and 11 have double the levels of their elders), it seems all the more urgent that we figure out if, or how badly, BPA is harming us.