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Bisphenol A: A case of uncertainty

Bisphenol A (BPA)-based plastic is clear and tough, and is used to make a variety of common consumer goods.The controversy surrounding the potential health effects of BPA has recently spread from the scientific arena to mass mediated public debate.

Background

BPA is used to make a tough plastic called polycarbonate to replace glass containers for food, eventually including baby bottles, and in electronic products. The current controversy surrounding BPA began in the early 1990s when a number of researchers at Stanford University realized that the chemical was migrating from the plastic (polycarbonate) laboratory bottles into the water that they were using.Bisphenol A is thought to be an endocrine disruptor which can mimic estrogen and may lead to negative health effects. Although dozens of scientific studies have found links between BPA and harm to health, other studies have failed to find such links, leading to disagreement within the scientific community about how much concern BPA warrants.

Actions

By mid 2008, responding to expressions of public concern and pressure from certain media, some policymakers themselves began arguing for state, city, and country-wide bans of BPA-containing plastics. In October 2008, following a number of critical BPA articles in the Toronto Globe and Mail referencing the work of vom Saal and others, Health Canada (the Canadian food and health regulator) decided to ban BPA from baby bottles, citing the necessary exercise of precaution. Following the baby bottle ban in Canada, increased pressure was put on the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) to come to a decision. In December 2008, FDA decided not to ban BPA, noting that the data remained inconclusive. By January 2011, nine U.S. states, ignoring the recommendations of the FDA, had banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and “sippy cups,” and a number of other states were considering state-wide bans. Even without concrete scientific evidence that BPA is actually harmful to humans, industry is beginning to stop producing BPA-containing bottles and infant feeding cups for the U.S. market.

Outcomes

In many cases, particularly where there is confusion and misperception about a possible risk to vulnerable populations, the public makes its decisions about what is right and wrong not based on the best available science but on the contender’s appearance or the charisma of a spokesperson or on the forcefulness of a sound bite made by a particular advocate. To address this issue, the budgets of scientific departments of regulatory agencies need to be increased so that they can develop scientifically independent robust arguments, accurate and informative sound bites, and clear and unambiguous advice to stakeholders and the public, to counter nonscientifically grounded accusations made by some special interest advocates.

 

Lofstedt, R. (2013). "Communicating Food Risks in an Era of Growing Public Distrust: Three Case Studies." Risk Analysis 33(2): 192-202.