Score one for science

Bisphenol A is safe for all consumers, declared the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) this week. Thus, the EU agency re-affirmed its 2006 decision declaring the chemical safe. In its statement, the agency justified its decision to revisit Bisphenol A (BPA) by pointing to a great deal of new research on the chemical’s health impacts. What it failed to mention in the official announcement was that its decision to re-examine BPA was also driven by the recent politically motivated French ban on BPA in food containers, which took effect on January 1 this year.

BPA is a chemical compound that is commonly used to produce plastic. At high levels, BPA could potentially be harmful. The main cause for concern stems from the ubiquitous use of plastic in food and cosmetic packaging. When plastic is used in packaging, trace amounts of BPA can leak into the food and cosmetic products and can be ingested or absorbed through skin. 

The most crucial factor in trying to determine whether a chemical is harmful is correctly measuring the exposure level. The exposure level indicates the amount of a chemical that finds its way into human body. Since “the dose makes the poison,” it is important to determine whether the amount of chemical that consumers are exposed to is high enough to cause any harm. For many substances, there is typically a safe level of exposure, below which the substance is harmless. 

The EFSA’s decision to declare BPA safe rested largely on its measurements of exposure levels for various consumer groups. The agency found that exposure levels were extremely low, about four to 15 times lower than the safe level. The finding held true despite the fact that the agency lowered the threshold for safe level of BPA from 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day to only four. 

Concerns over BPA’s impact are not new. In 2011, EU banned the use of BPA in baby bottles. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration followed suit. Yet, as the FDA pointed out, its decision simply codified the steps that the industry has already taken to phase out BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. Crucially, the FDA maintained that it considered the chemical safe at its current exposure levels. The agency issued the ban at the industry’s request in order to allay concerns that some parents may have, even though it found no evidence that BPA’s use in baby bottles caused any harm. The FDA’s position was confirmed by the EFSA’s announcement, which found BPA to be safe for all age groups including infants. 

Yet, it was the French that took the unsubstantiated panic over BPA to the new heights. In 2012, the French government issued a law to ban BPA from all products that come into contact with food. The law went into effect at the start of this year. The French government’s actions set it up for a conflict with the other EU members, who argued that the ban amounted to an internal trade barrier. The EFSA and its French counterpart began discussions to resolve their differences. 

By refusing to give in to the anti-BPA hysteria, the EFSA allowed companies to avoid the unnecessary costs of replacing BPA. It also saved European consumers money, as the additional costs of BPA phase out would be ultimately passed on to consumers—though French consumers would still have to pay the price for their government’s ban. Most importantly, the EFSA reaffirmed the principle that safety regulation ought to be driven by scientific evidence, not politics.

Abdukadirov is a research fellow in the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.