Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a decision about the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and its use in food packaging. Their decision affects everyone’s health and our right to be protected from exposure to harmful chemicals in our food, our homes and our environment. The agency ruled that it will not limit the use of BPA in food packaging products.
The BPA backstory
I won’t go into a full history of the problems with BPA, because our colleagues at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families have put together a great introduction to the chemical. But I do want to talk about why we are concerned that it is being used in an essentially unregulated manner and in a broad range of products—from the linings of food cans to thermal receipt paper to amalgam dental fillings. An ever-growing body of science continues to find links between the chemical and several harmful health effects, including: diabetes, obesity, breast and prostate cancer.
Several studies were released in 2011 related to the presence of BPA in our food. One study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that eliminating canned and pre-packaged foods from the diet of study participants over a three-day period reduced levels of the chemical in their urine by an average of 60 percent. Another study from The Journal of the American Medical Association found that eating a canned food item once a day can increase levels of BPA up to 1,200 percent. And finally, testing conducted by the Breast Cancer Fund (here and here) revealed that BPA is found in canned foods. Levels of the chemical in each food varied, but in some a single serving contained levels that have been linked with adverse health effects in lab studies.
Current state of affairs: a badly broken system
Several states have taken action in recent years on BPA in everyday products, including Minnesota—the first state in the nation to ban use of the chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups. But why are states compelled to take action on this matter to begin with?
The need for state level action to protect public health stems from the badly broken systems that are meant to keep harmful chemicals off the market, but in fact fail miserably at doing so.
In the case of bisphenol A in food packaging, regulatory authority falls to the U.S. FDA. Today’s decision is the result of a multi-year battle between the agency and NRDC. More than three years ago, NRDC petition the FDA to ban the use of bisphenol A as a food additive. Because the agency did not respond within a reasonable time frame, NRDC mounted a legal action which resulted in a settlement requiring the FDA to render a decision by March 31, 2012. You can read a full account of the process on the NRDC Switchboard Blog.
This delay in and of itself is emblematic of our broken system: even in the face of mounting evidence on the problems associated with BPA, it took the FDA more than three years and a court case to make a ruling that ultimately does not protect our health.
The problem of harmful chemicals contaminating our food is only one piece of the puzzle. Problem chemicals are also ending up in our environment and our bodies through exposures to everyday consumer products and chemicals in our environment. Contrary to popular belief, chemicals are not proven safe before they are used in the production of our everyday products. The result? There is no comprehensive oversight of chemicals in the U.S. and we don’t have an adequate system for identifying which chemicals are safe and which ones are harmful.
Given the sad state of policy at the federal level, states will continue to play a key role in protecting the health of our people. But we also need to demand action where our agencies have failed us. Healthy Legacy is a Minnesota-based coalition, co-founded by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, working to phase the use of toxic chemicals out of everyday products. Sign up now to receive action alerts and to keep up to date with our work.