The California State assembly is about to consider legislation intended to frighten parents about the safety of baby bottles, teethers, pacifiers and other plastic toys.
assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Oakland, has introduced a bill (aB319) that would ban the manufacture and sale of any toy or child care article intended for use by a child under three years of age if that product contains the chemical bisphenol-a (BPa).
aB319’s provisions claim that BPa is an “estrogen-mimicking endocrine disruptor chemical” that “has been shown to have hormone disrupting effects.” The bill echoes unfounded allegations from a 1990s-era, environmental activist-generated scare about chemicals in the environment supposedly interfering with hormonal processes to cause everything from cancer to infertility to attention deficit disorder.
So what is BPa and does it pose a risk to children’s health?
BPa has been used for more than 50 years to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins that are found in countless products, including food storage containers, CDs/DVDs, sports safety equipment, toys, and lifesaving medical devices to name a few. Everyone uses BPa and most of us have spent our entire lives with products made with it.
Not only does BPa have relatively low toxicity, but only minute traces of it may be detected in consumer products. BPa is excreted rapidly from the body within a day and it doesn’t build-up in tissues.
Typical human exposures to BPa are 100 times to 1,000 times lower than the levels permitted by government guidelines — rules that are set way below actual safety levels. Human exposure levels are typically more than one million times lower than levels shown to be safe in experiments involving multiple generations of laboratory animals.
Scientific review panels from the U.S., European Union and Japanese governments have reviewed the data on BPa and none have found that typical human exposures to BPa pose any detectable risk of harm.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug administration responded to a request from California assemblyman Greg aghazarian who asked whether BPa was safe for use in contact with food and beverages.
“Considering all the evidence, including measurements by FDa chemists of levels found in canned foods or migrating from baby bottles, FDa sees no reason at this time to ban or otherwise restrict the uses [of BPa] now in practice,” stated the FDa.
Fifty years of experience and a lot of scientific examination of BPa indicate it’s safe — so what’s behind the aB319 scare?
The short answer is the same folks who were behind the 1990s scare about so-called “endocrine disruptors.” They’re led by University of Missouri activist-researcher Frederick vom Saal who claims that BPa is a “phenomenally potent sex hormone” that acts like “birth control pills."
But vom Saal has previously made scientific claims that are not only unsubstantiated, but incapable of being substantiated.
In 2001, for example, he claimed that his experiments on laboratory mice supposedly showed that very low doses of some chemicals — thousands of times lower than safety standards — increased prostate weight in male mice and advanced puberty in female mice.
No other laboratory was able to reproduce vom Saal's work — and reproducibility of experimental data is a prerequisite for results to be considered “scientific.”
Vom Saal also guaranteed that his work would never be reproduced.
His experiments involved a unique strain of mice that he inbred in his laboratory for about 20 years. When the mice stopped producing the results he wanted, he killed them. Without the same strain of mouse, vom Saal's experiments can't be reproduced by others and his work can't be thoroughly evaluated.
Vom Saal’s latest hijinks, conveniently timed for aB 319, are centered around his new claim that of 115 published studies on BPa, 94 of them reported significant effects in rats and mice, while 21 studies did not.
But vom Saal didn’t make this claim in a peer-reviewed scientific study, but rather in an opinion piece for the health-scare oriented journal Environmental Health Perspectives. In any event, scientific facts are not determined by simply counting the studies on the various sides of an issue without regard to their quality. Study quality is critical. a single high quality study — like those concerning BPa relied on by international scientific review bodies — can vanquish any number of poor quality ones.
The fact that there are 115 published studies on BPa indicates that there has been a lot of interest in BPa among researchers. But out of all that interest, only the suspicious vom Saal — closely associated with, and championed by the extreme anti-chemical activist movement — is trying to alarm the public about BPa.
Finally, there may also be commercial interests at stake with aB319. Earlier this year, vom Saal spoke against BPa at an event in the United Kingdom that was sponsored by a company [suggested link is selling plastic baby bottles “guaranteed to be free from bisphenol-a”
The California assembly ought to take all these facts into consideration before voting to scare the public about baby bottles.
Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).