The Politics of Plastics: Food Fights Over Bisphenol A



La Tomatina Food Fight

We noted earlier that Consumers Reports Confirms Bisphenol A Leaches From Tin Cans. This didn't sit well with our friends at Stats.org, who responded with Consumer Reports BPA study filled with factual errors. Consumers Reports shot back with Industry reacts to Consumer Reports' BPA report, noting:


Salary costs for STATS are shared with the Center for Media and Public Affairs. [in fact they even share office space] 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.

Stats president Robert Lichter denies this, saying no such funding has taken place. He can probably say this with a straight face because the Exxon money went in the other pocket, when he was the DeWitt Wallace Chair in Mass Communications at the American Enterprise Institute, which was funded by Exxon to the tune of $1.6 million.

Meanwhile, Sarah Vogel has written a wonderful article in the American Journal of Public Health titled The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A "Safety", which unfortunately costs fifteen bucks to download, which will significantly limit its distribution. That's a shame, because it is a dispassionate discussion of the debate. She asks two questions:


First, what is the best available science for assessing the safety of BPA? And second, if BPA is unsafe, why was it presumed to be safe for the past 50 years an how did this understanding change? To answer these questions demands a critical examination of the historical process by which BPA's safety was defined and the ways this assumption was ultimately challenged by new scientific research.

BPA was identified as a possible synthetic estrogen in the 30s by a British medical researcher while he was looking for "the mother substance", which he finally found in the hormone DES, used as a treatment for "female problems" until it was banned in 1979. In the meantime, in 1957 BPA was polymerized and turned into polycarbonate, but since its use was primarily as a plastic, "its safety was defined by its commercial use in plastics and accordingly, by its toxic rather than hormonelike properties."

BPA isn't very toxic, and it passes through the body quickly, so the FDA considered it to be safe. But in 1993 researchers looking for an estrogen in yeast found that their experiment was being contaminated by estrogen-like BPA from their polycarbonate flasks, and scientists started looking at the issue of "endocrine disruption" from low doses of estrogen-like substances, at levels way below the FDA's threshold doses. The chemical industry and those involved in low dose research have been fighting ever since. Vogel concludes:

Low dose research is no longer on the margins of accepted scientific thought but is moving into the mainstream of accepted knowledge. And yet, although scientific understanding of BPA expanded dramatically over the past 10 years, its 20-year-old safety standard, based on a threshold-dose model, has remained fixed.

Perhaps the FDA will reconsider that in its upcoming report.

More on BPA in TH:

Consumers Reports Confirms Bisphenol A Leaches From Tin Cans
Bisphenol A Is In Your Tomato Sauce
Is There Bisphenol A In Your Home Canning?
Bisphenol A Found in Baby Food in Glass Jars

Tags: Bisphenol A | Food Safety

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