March 29, 2012

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By Rachel Nuwer

The ongoing battle to outlaw Bisphenol-A—a chemical found in products ranging from baby bottles to shower curtains to food cans—comes to a head this week.

Since 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council has pushed the Food and Drug Administration to ban BPA in any container that holds or comes in contact with food. When the FDA failed to respond within its allotted 180 days as required by law, the NRDC sued the administration. Now, the FDA is required to respond to the NRDC’s petition no later than March 31.

“There is no doubt that BPA is dangerous for human health,” said Daniella Russo, the executive director and co-founder of the non-governmental organization Plastic Pollution Coalition. “The question is, why are we not moving to do something when this is a well known fact?”

BPA gives plastics their unique qualities like malleability, color and transparency, and manufacturers use 8 billion pounds of the stuff each year. However, BPA—which was originally used in the 1930s as a synthetic estrogen—is also an endocrine disrupter.

When it first began appearing in plastic products in the 1950s, toxicologists thought that, in small quantities, the chemical would not cause any harm. For the past few years, however, raging debate between the industry and scientific communities called into question whether or not BPA really is benign. Scientific evidence has shown that, even at low doses, BPA and other endocrine disrupting chemicals can cause harmful health effects.

Part of the FDA’s mandatory response requires a review of public opinion, which is where the Plastic Pollution Coalition and other organizations like the Breast Cancer Fund and the Environmental Working Group step in. The groups set up a web petition supporting the BPA ban that has already been signed by notable people like Martha Stewart, Hillary Swank and Sylvia Earle, wrote lawyer and advocate Matthew Spiegl in a Huffington Post op-ed.

In addition to organizing petitions, Russo works towards bridging the gap between public understanding and science. “This is not a nerdy science call to do something that nobody understands, it’s actually very real,” she said.

Indeed, 9 out of 10 people reading this article likely have some degree of BPA contamination. Tests carried out by the Centers for Disease Control found that more than 90 percent of Americans have traces of BPA within their bodies. Evidence links the chemical to obesity and diabetesthyroid disease and cancer. Some studies indicate that people who regularly encounter the contaminant—like sales clerks handling BPA-laden receipts or people who tend to eat a lot of canned food with BPA lining—may be at a higher risk of health impacts.

The chemical also travels up the food web. As plastic pollution in the ocean breaks down, tiny plastic particles are consumed by fish, which then accumulate the contaminant in their own tissues.

“The FDA claims we need more studies, but studies have already been done and presented,” Russo said. Though causative links between endocrine disruptors and disease are oftentimes tricky to prove, she pointed out, “How many years did it take to prove the connection between smoking or cancer?”

“We’re pushing not to wait until people get sick passively, but to do something now,” she said.

Top Image Credit: Rob Noble, Geograph

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