Bisphenol A: Some Concerns Remain
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September 3, 2008 — Government scientists today expressed some concern about the plastic chemical bisphenol A — but about fewer health topics than they noted last spring.
Bisphenol A, also called BPA, is found in polycarbonate plastic, including some water bottles and baby bottles, and in epoxy resins, which are used to line metal products, including canned foods.
Bisphenol A has been in the media spotlight since April, when the National Toxicology Program (NTP) issued a draft report expressing certain concerns about bisphenol A.
Since then, several major companies — including Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us, and Babies "R" Us — have backed away from baby bottles containing bisphenol A, and Nalgene ditched bisphenol A in its consumer bottles.
But the plastics industry has steadily maintained that bisphenol A is safe for people at typical levels of exposure, and an FDA draft report, issued last month, agrees.
Now, the debate has come full circle, with today's release of the NTP's final report on bisphenol A. The plastics industry praises the report, saying it identified "no serious human health concerns."
But some NTP officials aren't so sure that their report settles all the questions about bisphenol A's safety. And the nonprofit Environmental Working Group continues to voice concern about bisphenol A, calling the NTP's report "courageous."
Bisphenol A Report
The NTP's final report on bisphenol A notes:
"Some concern" for effects on the brain, prostate gland, and on behavior in fetuses, infants, and children.
"Minimal concern" for effects on the mammary gland and an earlier age for puberty for females in fetuses, infants, and children, and for reproductive effects in adults who work with bisphenol A.
"Negligible concern" for fetal or neonatal death, birth defects, or reduced birth weight and growth in babies born to women exposed to bisphenol A during pregnancy, and also for reproductive effects in adults who don't work with bisphenol A.
In April, the NTP's draft report mentioned "some concern" for bisphenol A's effects on mammary glands and early female puberty. In June, an NTP advisory panel recommended changing that to "minimal" concern, and the NTP followed that advice in its final report.
NTP's Lingering Questions
Much of the research on bisphenol A's safety has been done on animals, and NTP officials say it's not clear how that translates to people.
"There remains considerable uncertainty whether the changes seen in the animal studies are directly applicable to humans, and whether they would result in clear adverse health effects," NTP Associate Director John Bucher, PhD, says in a news release. "But we have concluded that the possibility that BPA may affect human development cannot be dismissed."
So what does the NTP recommend that consumers do?
"Unfortunately, it is very difficult to offer advice on how the public should respond to this information," Michael Shelby, PhD, director of the NTP's Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), says in a news release.
"More research is clearly needed to understand exactly how these findings relate to human health and development, but at this point we can't dismiss the possibility that the effects we're seeing in animals may occur in humans. If parents are concerned, they can make the personal choice to reduce exposures of their infants and children to BPA," Shelby says.
Plastics Industry, Critics Respond
All along, the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for the plastics industry, has maintained that bisphenol A is safe at typical exposure levels, and that lab tests on animals aren't a good gauge of risk to humans.
That's in line with the FDA's draft report and a separate report by European health officials concluded in July. And in August, California lawmakers rejected a bill that would have limited bisphenol A to trace amounts in products geared to kids aged 3 and younger.
"The safety of our products is our highest priority," Steven G. Hentges, PhD, of the American Chemistry Council's Polycarbonate/BPA Group, says in a news release. "An earlier draft of the NTP report has already been used by the [FDA] to support their safety assessment, which confirms that food-contact products made from polycarbonate plastic, including products for infants and children, can continue to be used safely."
Meanwhile, the EWG focuses on the concern mentioned in the NTP's report, calling it a "measured" stance. In a statement emailed to WebMD, EWG Executive Director Richard Wiles is critical of the plastics industry and the FDA, and says "the new NTP assessment tells us that we are right to be concerned about BPA."
The NTP's report is about science. It doesn't make recommendations about banning or otherwise regulating bisphenol A; that's up to the FDA. An FDA spokesperson wasn't immediately available to comment on the NTP's final report.
National Toxicology Program Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, "NTP-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Bisphenol A."
News release, National Toxicology Program.
News release, American Chemistry Council.
News release, Environmental Working Group.
WebMD Feature: " Bisphenol A: 6 Questions and Answers."
WebMD Health News: "Bisphenol A Safe, Says FDA."
WebMD Health News: " Cap's Off on Plastic Chemical Concerns."
WebMD Health News: "Panel Weighs Bisphenol A Report."
WebMD Health News: " Stores to Pull Bisphenol A Baby Bottles."
WebMD Health News: "Nalgene Ditching Bisphenol A."