While it’s good to get official bans on BPA in baby bottles and infant-food containers, the FDA acting based on market abandonment is not good public health policy. In fact, it’s not public health policy at all. When the agency entrusted to make sure our food is safe will only ban a toxic chemical’s use after industry has stopped using it, while continuing to allow its use in other food containers, including baby food and canned foods eaten by kids and pregnant women, it’s hard not to conclude that the FDA is protecting industry, not public health.
Not convinced yet? Consider this: The FDA rejected petitions submitted by Markey calling for a ban on BPA in baby-food containers, food cans and reusable storage containers because the congressman’s office could not prove that the market had abandoned using BPA in these applications. So, not only is the agency saying, sorry, we’ll only do retroactive bans, it’s also showing its cards that it does not know who’s using BPA and in what applications, and putting the onus outside the agency to prove that industry is not using BPA. Is this any way to manage public health?
Industry abandoned BPA in baby bottles and infant-formula containers because consumers demanded it. The public demand grew out of a growing body of scientific evidence linking BPA to a host of diseases–including breast cancer. Most of us are exposed to BPA every day. In fact, the CDC found BPA in 93 percent of all Americans tested, and the National Institutes of Health point to food packaging, including food cans, which are lined with BPA, as a major route of exposure. BPA has been found in the blood and urine of pregnant women, in the umbilical cord blood of newborns and in breast milk soon after women gave birth.
In January 2010 the FDA said BPA warranted “some concern” for its potential effects on children's development, and the agency said it would fully reassess the safety of BPA. In the subsequent 20 months, the body of scientific evidence against BPA has only grown. Now, more than 200 lab studies show that exposures to even low doses of BPA, particularly during pregnancy and early infancy, are associated with a wide range of adverse health effects later in life, including breast cancer. Studies show that BPA exposure can make non-cancerous breast cells grow and survive like cancer cells, and can actually make the cells less responsive to the cancer-inhibiting effects of tamoxifen, a drug used in the treatment of breast cancer.
The scientific evidence and the resulting consumer backlash against BPA is bad news for the American Chemistry Council—the chemical industry’s front group that has fiercely defended BPA until its curious move to petition the FDA to ban BPA in baby bottles. One can only imagine that the logic at play was: because our clients’ customers have already abandoned this use of the chemical, let’s call it an official ban, and hope that dampens public outrage around BPA. And the FDA seems to be playing along.
If the FDA’s best scientific judgment is that BPA is a harmless chemical, that it is OK for pregnant women, children and babies to be exposed continuously to it, then the agency should defend that position and not implement any partial bans. If the FDA knows that this chemical has no place in the lives of vulnerable, developing infants and children, then it should take action and ban it in all products that come in contact with food.
So while we applaud the scientists who continue to add to the evidence against this toxic chemical, the consumers who built the demand for BPA-free food containers, and the health professionals and advocates who have kept this issue in the public eye, we cannot applaud the FDA. The agency is tasked with making decisions in favor of public health based on scientific evidence—not on politics, not on commercial interests, and certainly not because a chemical use has been abandoned. The American people deserve better.
Rizzo, R.N., is president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, which works to prevent breast cancer by eliminating exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease.