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New & Now: Fall 2008

Darkness Visible

Trains on Time

Vision Quest

Plastic War

Disappearing Doctors

Bad Business

Early Warning

Protective Paste

 

Plastic War

A long, often ugly battle over Bisphenol nears its end game.

Back in the mid-1990s, MU's Frederick vom Saal sounded the alarm about health hazards associated with bisphenol A, a chemical used in an astonishing array of plastic products, among them drinking cups, food-storage containers, dental sealants and baby bottles.

Vom Saal spoke out after his research suggested that very low doses of bisphenol A produced an "estrogen effect" that was harmful to fetal development. Later tests with laboratory animals suggested the chemical could also contribute to brain and reproductive system abnormalities in adults.

Vom Saal's early work, described in a past Illumination feature (available online), created a buzz in the media. Stories quoting him appeared in many of the nation's most prominent newspapers and magazines, and he was featured on public television's influential documentary series Frontline.

The attention was not welcomed by representatives of the chemical and plastics industries. Associations affiliated with both groups immediately went on the offensive against vom Saal, today a Curator's Professor of Biological Sciences at MU, launching harsh public attacks aimed at disputing his conclusions and undermining his credibility.

Thanks in part to this determined industry pushback, years passed with no action on bisphenol A from federal regulatory agencies. But now this is changing, thanks to both vom Saal's persistence and to a growing body of scientific evidence that has emerged in support of his warnings.

The latest corroboration has come from a two-year study by a team of British epidemiologists and American toxicologists. Their systematic review of data from more than 1,450 participants in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey determined that, at current levels of exposure, concerns that bisphenol A might pose diabetes and cardiovascular disease risks are justified and warrant further study. The finding was published this September in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In an editorial accompanying the JAMA article, vom Saal applauded the finding and urged immediate action.

"Despite growing research that confirms BPA [bisphenol A] is dangerous to our health, the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority have chosen to ignore warnings from expert panels and other government agencies and have continued to declare BPA as ‘safe,'" wrote vom Saal. "Further evidence of harm should not be required for regulatory action to begin the process of reducing exposure to BPA."

The JAMA report and vom Saal's editorial have been cited by several prominent members of Congress who support passage of the "BPA-Free Kids Act of 2008," legislation that would ban bisphenol A from children's products. The bill would also order the CDC to further study possible BPA health effects.

The FDA, on the other hand, remains unmoved. "We have confidence in the data we've looked at to say that the margin of safety is adequate," Laura Tarantino, head of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, told the Washington Post following publication of the JAMA article. But, she added, consumers might want to take steps on their own to reduce their exposure to the chemical.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.

 

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