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A Toxic Setback for the Anti-Plastic Campaigners

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A triumph for sound science.

Advocacy groups targeting plastic products made with bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates took it on the chin last week.

A comprehensive review by the German Society of Toxicology of thousands of studies on BPA concluded, “[BPA] exposure represents no noteworthy risk to the health of the human population, including newborns and babies.” The group, which included several scientists who have advised regulatory caution on BPA, bucked calls by advocacy groups to lower safe exposure levels.

This is a huge development in this ongoing saga and a major endorsement of the scientific method. Over the past decade, German toxicologists had been among the most aggressive in arguing for precautionary standards when regulating plastic additives. BPA is used to line metal cans and make epoxy products and polycarbonate plastics, including children’s sippy cups. Phthalates are softeners used to manufacture vinyl products, from gym mats to cabling and medical tubing.

After an extensive review of some 5000 studies, the German toxicologists reaffirmed the scientific consensus that BPA is safe when used even by the most vulnerable populations—young children and pregnant women.

Researchers generally agree BPA is neither mutagenic nor likely to be a carcinogen. But some 200 studies—almost all small-scale “explorative” studies on rats—have suggested that BPA might trigger biological activity, including possible neurological or endocrinological effects, and have called it an “endocrine disruptor.” But after an extensive review of some 5,000 studies, the German toxicologists reaffirmed the scientific consensus that BPA is safe when used even by the most vulnerable populations—young children and pregnant women: “After having carefully considered all arguments, the Committee had to conclude that the criticism was scientifically not justified; moreover, recently published additional data further support the reliability of … studies demonstrating a lack of estrogen-dependent effects.”

BPA has been declared safe based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence by every major government agency in every major industrial country in the world. In the past few years, Canada, France, and Denmark have instituted precautionary restrictions on BPA use in some infant products, in defiance of recommendations from their science advisory boards. Some state and local politicians in the United States have done so too.

The German science panel took a notable swipe at the critics’ central argument, the ultra-precautionary view that biological activity equates to harm. Certainly, BPA can impact the endocrine system, as can many substances, including foods such as tofu and nuts. “Explorative studies may identify a chemical-induced biological event, but this event may not translate into an adverse health effect,” the panel noted. “The long-term low-dose safety-studies on BPA demonstrate this."

Many journalists long ago signed the ‘plastics are dangerous’ pledge and have ignored the slew of recent comprehensive international meta-reviews rejecting the hysteria campaign.

In reviewing what it called a long-running “scientific and journalistic controversy,” the panel urged the public to avoid being seduced by each and every provocative small-scale laboratory experiment on a handful of rats. "It is not helpful to count how many academic studies are positive versus negative and to decide by majority vote whether a health hazard has to be expected or not," as the anti-BPA crowd and compliant media do as a matter of course. Science is not "majority feelings" win; it's about "weight of evidence."

Although this evaluation is noteworthy because of its prestigious authorship, it will come as news only to those who … well, it will probably come as news to almost all readers. Many journalists long ago signed the “plastics are dangerous” pledge and have ignored the slew of recent comprehensive international meta-reviews that contradicted that narrative. Googling “BPA” and “dangerous” turns up more than 1.3 million entries, including 2,250  results for one of the most outrageous, inaccurate, and widely circulated stories, “BPA Wrecks Sex," which was generated from a blog post by a campaigner for the Environmental Working Group.

Media that have breathlessly reported on findings from studies of 12 or 15 rodents—Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Consumer Reports, and most aggressively the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has run more than 50 stories highlighting one obscure study after another—did not even mention this groundbreaking report, one of the most extensive reviews of the BPA literature ever undertaken.

Science is not ‘majority feelings’ win; it's about ‘weight of evidence.’

I laid out this disturbing trend of misreporting in a Huffington Post article last fall, after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found fatal flaws in the now infamous 2010 “Stump study,” a rodent study that hinted at possible neurological associations. It concluded the study was poorly executed and unconvincing, writing that it “does not consider the currently available data sufficiently indicative of neurobehavioural toxicity as an endpoint of concern for BPA.”

But the damage from the now-discredited study had already worked its way into politically conceived regulations. Denmark and France voted earlier last year to ban BPA in baby bottles based on the Stump study’s inflammatory conclusions, and then refused to rescind the bans after the EFSA endorsed BPA’s safety. Meanwhile, anti-BPA campaigners across the world have woven the “brain damage” hypothesis deeply into their attack scripts, and do not appear ready to let the latest scientific findings dampen their ardor.

California, Maine, and other states are hotly debating advocacy-supported bans on BPA in food containers. Sadly, large swaths of the media, woefully inclined to “follow the evidence,” have abandoned objectivity on this issue and refuse to report on the growing number of literature reviews and studies that BPA and other plastic additives, such as phthalates, are safe as commonly used. At what point should science prevail?

Jon Entine is director of the Genetic Literacy Project at STATS/George Mason University and is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Entine also wrote “Genetics and Health 2.0 vs. the Old Guard,” “How Corrupt Is the World Food Program?” with Till Bruckner, and “Wherefore Art Thou, Green Obama.” He comments on the “Plastic Wars: Science Loses in Renewed Campaign against Plasticizers,” considers “Biotech: Is Organic GM the Answer?” and says “Don't Rush to Ban Chemicals.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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