The unintended consequences of neglecting science

A current case study involves Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s announced plan to add an amendment to food safety legislation, upon its arrival on the Senate floor, to ban the plastics additive bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles, sippy cups, and containers for baby food and infant formula. In announcing her plan she claimed that, “babies and children are particularly at risk from the harmful health effects of BPA,” because of their size and age. Notwithstanding the fact that there has not been a single documented health risk from consumer use of BPA over the past half century, new research further contradicts the rationale for the senator’s proposal

Specifically, two new studies by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly indicate that newborns have the capacity to metabolize and eliminate BPA from the body. The first study examined this process in rats and found that after ingesting BPA, both adult and newborn rats could efficiently and rapidly metabolize BPA although newborn rats did so in a slightly different manner than adults.

BPA did not accumulate in the bodies of either adult or newborn rats. Indicating that in other “low-dose” rat ingestion studies, there would be so little BPA present that it is highly unlikely that the BPA could have caused harmful effects.

The second FDA study was conducted in monkeys. This study is much more relevant to humans because humans are more similar to monkeys than to rats. FDA not only found that adult monkeys could efficiently metabolize BPA, but also that newborn monkeys had the same capacity to safely metabolize and eliminate BPA as adults.

It is notable that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed BPA in urine from human infants in neonatal intensive care units and found that even premature infants have the capacity to metabolize BPA. In fact, the majority of studies that measured BPA in human urine samples are consistent with the monkey study. This indicates that BPA is safely and rapidly metabolized and eliminated and also that the majority of studies estimating BPA levels in human blood likely overestimate exposure, most likely due to background contamination from laboratory equipment.

I agree with Sen. Feinstein that we must protect babies and toddlers from harmful chemicals, but banning BPA will not accomplish this. Even before the release of the rat and monkey studies, FDA earlier this year stated that the agency “is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods, as the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk from BPA exposure.”

Perhaps more importantly, packaging that contains lining made with BPA prevents food from spoiling. Were it not for BPA linings in baby food and formula containers, parents could face the real life danger of food poisoning. Furthermore, no potential BPA replacement has been studied as extensively as BPA, meaning that consumers may be forced to use products made with chemicals that may actually lead to increased health risks.

There may be no better example of the importance of ensuring that good science is the foundation of health policy and legislation. Any effort to ban BPA would not be merely misguided or ineffective; it may actually put infants and toddlers at higher risk.

Julie E. Goodman, PhD DABT teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health, is a board-certified toxicologist, and is the director of epidemiology at Gradient, an environmental consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.