- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A new health scare — over the safe and useful plastic component, bisphenol-A (BPA) — has taken wing, fomented by the usual suspects: “experts” in rat toxicology working with alarmist, chemical-hating “environmental” activists and self-serving media scaremongers. Soon, we know all too well, will come the plaintiffs’ lawyers to “protect” the public from the non-existent (but lucrative) threats lurking in our plastic bottles.

Once again, our environmental stewards have ventured into an area to which they are ill-suited: human health. The new draft report on the chemical, issued by the National Toxicology Program (NTP, a branch of the EPA), is being trumpeted by greeniacs everywhere as if a cure for cancer had been discovered or malaria eradicated.

The facts buried in the report are quite the opposite of the newspaper headlines. There is no cause for concern, much less alarm, over the tiny exposures we face from plastic bottles made with BPA. The hysteria, aggravated by reports of moms nationwide throwing out “toxic” baby bottles with the number 7 on them, is based (as usual) on rat tests and “general themes” of toxicity, rather than on anything approaching scientific evidence.

The NTP panel found that high doses of BPA caused illnesses in rats and mice. To this unsurprising news, they helpfully added that some researchers are concerned that low doses might have effects on embryonic rodents as well. Never mind that it’s always the same small group that discovers these “low-dose effects.” Mainstream scientists strongly doubt the existence of such hypothetical effects — if large doses don’t harm, how can small ones do so? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that makes no sense, just someone acquainted with the basic principle of toxicology that the dose makes the poison.

Please take note: there is no evidence at all — none — that human beings of any age or developmental stage have been harmed in any way by common exposure to BPA. Even workers using the chemical in manufacturing have not been shown to have suffered any harm. The fact that rodents suffer at high doses of the chemical has nothing to do with human health: The same animal tests performed on natural chemicals we eat and drink every day give the same “toxicity” results. If we consistently banned substances based on these tests, we’d be left with nothing at all, natural or manmade. And the presence of tiny amounts of BPA in our bodies and tissues does not mean that it causes us any harm — although you would never know that from the news stories describing the “chemical soup” we live in.

The NTP panel exposes its bias by proclaiming that there is some evidence of “hormonal effects” in workers from BPA. When one delves into the sources of this assertion, it seems that the evidence shows no such thing at all. The only “evidence” the panelists cite derives from rodent tests — and now, even the EPA has declared such tests to be unreliable for human health risk assessment.

This alarmist tripe follows the recent uproar about contaminated toys from China. But while that concern was actually about excessive lead content — a regulatory rather than a public-health issue — the media and the activists managed to provoke fear about plasticizer phthalates in toys as well, and they have successfully gotten several states to ban these perfectly safe chemicals — over nothing. Again, the source of the “evidence” comes from one or two labs whose careers have been built on fomenting baseless chemical fears.

This new scare is part and parcel of the “back to nature” school of public health. There is no substance to the dogma promulgated by technophobes that “natural is good, synthetic is bad.” All of the great epidemic infections we have conquered are of “natural” origin — and we beat them with technology. The same folks who warn us against BPA — and phthalates in toys and all the other phony threats — tend to oppose gene-splicing technology, which holds the promise of relieving food scarcity now threatening world health and stability. But they’d rather rant about non-existent health threats they invent than deal with real-life problems. They have been warning us about the dangers of cosmetics, French fries and vaccines — while ignoring real problems, such as smoking and underutilization of interventions such as colonoscopy and adult immunizations.

And where are the experts in human disease causation and prevention here? Why are the NIH and the NCI mute when these scares grab the headlines? These groups are supposed to know about human health — yet public and media attention is grabbed by the experts in rat illness every time. I must paraphrase Edmund Burke: the only requirement for the ignorant to triumph is for the informed to remain silent. That’s what is happening now, as voices of alarm become ever more shrill.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is executive and medical director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).

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