Published April 24, 2008
Wal-Mart announced last week that it would stop selling baby bottles made with the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA.
In the past, I would have laid the blame for this junk science-fueled shame at the feet of anti-chemical environmental jihadists, their pseudo-scientist henchmen at universities and government regulatory agencies and Wal-Mart's knuckleheaded executives, who seem to be more interested in appeasing eco-pressure groups than reassuring consumers the products the retailer has sold for decades are safe.
But the banning of baby bottles made with BPA is so mind-bogglingly baseless that I just have to lay the blame where it truly belongs — with the lame-o chemical industry, which utterly failed to defend its product against activist claims and a regulatory process so specious it would cause voodoo practitioners to shudder.
First, there is no evidence anyone has ever been harmed by BPA in a consumer product, despite widespread use in baby and medical products and food and beverage containers; moreover, there’s no reason to expect anyone ever would be harmed, as exposures to BPA from consumer products are 100 times lower than the "safe" level determined by government regulators.
If you think about it, products made with BPA are, in fact, safer than, say, Wal-Mart’s peanut-containing products that can cause fatal allergic reactions in children. Yet peanut products remain on the shelves.
So just how did BPA wind up becoming chemical non grata?
Early activist efforts against industrial chemicals in the environment (circa 1960-1990) largely were based on allegations that they were cancer-causing. But by the early-1990s it became clear that this was not so, particularly at exposure levels typically found in the environment.
The activists then switched to claims that small exposures to certain chemicals — so-called "environmental estrogens" or "endocrine disrupters" — interfered with normal hormonal processes to cause a variety of adverse health effects ranging from attention deficit disorder to miscarriages to sterility.
This scare hit the mainstream media in 1996 with the publication of the alarmist book "Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival? — A Scientific Detective Story."
The book and scare quickly faded, however, as many scientists and the chemical industry responded strongly against the allegations, some of the scare’s prominent proponents were found guilty of related scientific misconduct and a review panel of the National Academy of Sciences determined in 1999 there was no evidence to support alarm about so-called endocrine disrupters.
So endocrine disrupter theory advocates went back to the drawing board and came up with a successful strategy: If their claims didn’t measure up to what generally was considered as science, then they would change how science was conducted.
As reported in this column seven years ago, the National Toxicology Program, or NTP — a federal agency whose mission seems to be scaring the public about industrial chemicals and whose staff is closely tied to the anti-chemical movement — did the activists’ dirty work by tossing out the toxicology rulebook in establishing two precedents key to the fate of BPA.
First, the NTP determined it no longer was necessary to show that the risk of health effects from a chemical increased with greater exposure. "The dose makes the poison" had been a fundamental principle of toxicology for hundreds of years.
The NTP then also decided it no longer was necessary for scientists to submit reproducible study results; traditionally, before the results of a scientific experiment are accepted as valid, other scientists must be able to confirm the results by replicating them independently.
These changes finally paid off last week as the NTP issued a preliminary assessment of BPA driven by several non-reproducible experiments claiming to indicate that BPA is associated with adverse health effects in mice at doses far below the safe levels determined by traditional testing.
"The scientific evidence that supports a conclusion of some concern for exposures in fetuses, infants and children comes from a number of laboratory animal studies reporting that 'low' level exposure to bisphenol A during development can cause changes in behavior and the brain, prostate gland, mammary gland, and the age at which females attain puberty," the NTP concluded.
Although the NTP also acknowledged that "these studies only provide limited evidence for adverse effects on development and more research is needed to better understand their implications for human health," the NTP’s finding of "some concern" was enough to prompt Wal-Mart to take action against BPA-containing baby bottles.
So why blame the chemical industry for the nefarious doings of a rogue NTP-activist cabal?
The industry had almost seven years to take political and legal action against a clearly corrupted government process. There is no evidence that the industry mounted any sort of vigorous public or behind-the-scenes defense of its product.
Worse, a terrible precedent has been set that will haunt the development and use of chemicals that improve the quality of our lives. While it is quite likely BPA can be replaced by some other chemical and sometimes it does make sense from a public relations perspective for an industry to "switch" rather than to "fight" over a particular chemical, BPA wasn’t the only thing at stake. The use of science in the regulatory process also was on the line.
BPA-maker Dow Chemical says on its Web site that "we support the development of responsible, science-based laws, regulations, standards, practices and procedures that safeguard the community, workplace and environment."
It’s going to take more than Web site lip service to live up to that principle.