BARR: Anti-BPA ‘science’ less than meets the eye

Fantasyland experiments lead to looney results

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Questionable science that came to light last year and earlier this year has cast a continuing cloud over the global-warming debate - a fact with which advocates of global-warming legislation must still contend. Now a similar debate over the science that advocates of anti-BPA legislation have employed is eroding the credibility of that movement.

The public discourse over the plastics additive Bisphenol-A (BPA), often used as a coating inside food containers, is tinged with a fervor seldom seen in the scientific arena. Many pronouncements on BPA have included exaggerated claims of danger to human health, and amateur commentators have erroneously sought to link BPA to myriad health problems, from sexual dysfunction to cancer. Based on such flimsy evidence, advocates want the chemical banned from use with food.

Increasingly, however, independent researchers are wading into the discussion armed with data showing quite the opposite - that BPA has never been shown to cause any human harm or ailment over the many decades in which it has been used in plastics and other containers to guard against contamination. Recent studies are establishing clearly that efforts to ban its use are not based on real science.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists Ronald J. Lorentzen and David G. Hattan brought the issue to light this summer in an online essay in the journal Nature. Their essay began from the premise that earlier claims of harm from exposure to BPA “are biased and cannot go unchallenged.” The crux of their thesis - which was rejected twice by Nature - is that “virtually every situation or substance is hazardous under some conditions or at some dose, and to refer to hazard [detection] alone paints a profoundly deficient portrait of risk” from BPA.

Differences of opinion on BPA can be traced largely to different types of experiments - how they are conducted and for what purpose. For example, inject substantial amounts of BPA into the uterus of a rat, as some researchers have done, and one might not be surprised to learn that uterine tumors develop. The problem with this approach is that nobody is injecting women with BPA; it is ingested orally in minuscule amounts, quickly metabolized by the body and excreted harmlessly.

Mr. Lorentzen and Mr. Hattan further illustrate this point with the example of ordinary water - drink too much and you will die. A far smaller dose of water administered through the respiratory system also results in death. The point is that research conducted without proper consideration of dosing and pathways into the body often yields meaningless data in terms of actual risk and formulating a regulatory response.

Questionable research regarding BPA has resulted in what Mr. Lorentzen and Mr. Hattan call an “unbalanced presentation to the public [that] should not continue.” They go on to warn that “the engagement has been far too measured and one-sided in the case of BPA.” The result, they contend, is like “making high-stakes public wagers playing with less than a full deck of cards.”

The position of these FDA scientists is shared by other independent researchers on both sides of the Atlantic, including professor Richard Sharpe with the human reproductive sciences unit at the University of Edinburgh. When asked by the British newspaper the Sun about how much evidence of danger from BPA has been documented, Mr. Sharpe answered dryly: “Very little.” He was similarly succinct in answering the question of what happens if we consume too much BPA: “Nothing, as far as I can tell.”

Mr. Sharpe then pivots from science to civics and undue regulatory policies for BPA: “Some have bowed to extreme pressure from groups advocating that Bisphenol-A is dangerous. They have given in to pressure and made a decision that has no scientific basis.” Mr. Sharpe makes his point by recommending that people pay more attention to avoiding sugar than BPA because “sugar is far more harmful to your body in the long term.”

Science can be used or misused to inform regulatory policy as Mr. Lorentzen, Mr. Hattan, Mr. Sharpe and other independent researchers increasingly are noting. Federal regulators at all levels - and members of Congress - would be wise to play with a full deck of cards and heed these experts’ recommendations when considering action on BPA or any other substance.

Bob Barr represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives and now practices law in Atlanta.

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