Of Killer Cans And Toxic Baby Bottles

January 01, 2010  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Independent Journalism Project  ·  Fda

Should we worry about a common chemical almost all of us carry in our bodies that activists claim causes a list of diseases longer than you’ll find in a major medical center?

Having for decades labeled the plastic ingredient bisphenol A (BPA) safe, the Food and Drug Administration has just announced it’s not so sure anymore.

Some U.S. jurisdictions have already restricted BPA use, and entire states like New York are considering bans.

This scary environmentalist propaganda cites seven vom Saal papers and lists him as a contributor.

Yet aside from Canada, which is banning BPA baby bottles, nobody else in the world seems worried. What’s our problem?

Partly it reflects media adoration for a single homegrown scientist. And strangely enough, it’s also a consequence of President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

BPA has been used since the late 1950s to make plastic supple and strong and is so valuable, more than 5 million tons are used worldwide each year. It’s found in myriad consumer products such as plastic food containers and reusable water bottles and provides the protective lining inside metal-based food and beverage cans.

Tiny amounts leach into food and drink and once in our bodies, according to environmentalists and other activists, cause cancer, heart disease, sexual dysfunction, impaired fertility, diabetes, hyperactivity, obesity, noncancerous ovarian disease, miscarriage – everything short of turning people into newts. And don’t rule that out.

The lynch mob is after BPA because it’s a weak synthetic estrogen. These chemicals have been under fire since the publication of the 1996 book "Our Stolen Future," which one review aptly described as "an alarmist tract with a polemical style clearly crafted for its political, not scientific, impact." (With a foreword by Al Gore, no less.)

Never mind that over 150 plants produce chemicals that also mimic estrogen, many of them foods that contain so much that they’re often recommended as natural hormone replacement therapy. The overall estrogenic effect of natural chemicals, according to Texas A&M University toxicologist Stephen Safe, is 40 million times that of the synthetics. Yes, it’s just the environmentalist saw: "Man-made bad; natural good."

Meanwhile, Europe has studied the chemical exhaustively and has repeatedly classified it as harmless as Perrier. Mind you, these are the same Europeans who have officially adopted the "precautionary principle" that usually means absurdly erring on the side of caution, who slap warning labels on cell phones and who flee at the sight of a grain of genetically modified corn.

In 2006, the European Union’s Food Safety Authority conducted a BPA risk assessment regarding infants that led to raising the maximum exposure level. It conducted a re-evaluation two years later. "All clear!"

Countries that have evaluated BPA in the last three years, as Trevor Butterworth of the STATS think tank has documented, include Norway, France, Germany (twice), Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Add to that a World Health Organization collaborative center. Each has found BPA safe. Even Canadian officials justified the baby bottle ban merely with "better safe than sorry."

So what’s with us?

For one, North America is home to rogue scientist Frederick vom Saal, a University of Missouri toxicologist who calls BPA "the biological equivalent of global warming." Our media have anointed him "America’s leading researcher" on BPA precisely because he says outrageous things.

Vom Saal's work usually just involves a tiny handful of mice, such that a single one with an enlarged prostate can make the average for the whole group statistically significant.

As to his research, unsurprisingly, other scientists have failed to replicate it. "They’ve used bigger studies, lots more animals, and they just can’t do it," says Maryland toxicologist Bob Golden. Nevertheless, the FDA cited a vom Saal paper in its announcement; indeed, it was the only report the agency relied on that was not produced by a government department.

Yet the most important factor prompting the FDA’s decision may have been the economic stimulus package.

You see, Obama in September announced the allocation of $5 billion in stimulus spending to 12,000 medical research grants, claiming it exemplified job creation that wasn’t merely "make work." But you can’t just drop that kind of money on a rush basis, as the stimulus aspect dictated, and hope to see it carefully allocated.

So within 30 days, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Director Linda Birnbaum announced $30 million in grants for two more years of BPA research to "address many of the research gaps" regarding the chemical. Yet over 5,400 medical journal articles have already been published on BPA safety. How many gaps can that leave? "That’s an awful lot of money just looking under more rocks to find something," says Golden.

Not incidentally, Birnbaum – who previously spent 16 years at the Environmental Protection Agency – has as her pet issue synthetic estrogens. Birnbaum’s work is critical to "Our Stolen Future" – though not so much as the research of another scientist named, yes, Frederick vom Saal. It’s all one big happy family.

Still, somebody outside the NIEHS needed to justify the spending. That was the FDA. "If they took Europe’s position it would trigger war with the NIEHS," says Butterworth. So the FDA flipped around the BPA sign on the door from "safe" to "questionable."

Unfortunately, Butterworth says, in that two-year interval companies may choose to "get rid of BPA because it’s just too much effort to battle this nonsense." As with the now-infamous ambush of the apple treatment Alar, another perfectly good chemical could start going down the drain.