Advocates on opposing sides of a public policy issue often have honest differences of opinion, with both viewpoints being plausible. It is the stuff of which democratic debate is made. But every so often, a proposal is floated that is starkly wrong and insupportable. California is facing just such a situation that constitutes a threat to public health.
The California Senate is preparing to take action on a bill that would place significant restrictions on the use of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), a ubiquitous industrial chemical that for more than 50 years has been an important raw material in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics used in consumer products including beverage containers, infant feeding bottles, plastic dinnerware and plastic storage containers, among other plastic products. But the language in Assembly Bill 319, goes far beyond determining which plastic products Californians may purchase in the future.
Among the provisions in AB1319 is a clause that would limit the amount of BPA in food to 0.1 parts per billion (ppb). Some nonexperts may assume that the lower the legal limit, the better, but the negative public health ramifications of such a standard are staggering. They arise from the fact that most of the canned foods consumers eat come from containers lined with a special safety epoxy that prevents the spread of fatal contamination by salmonella, Clostridium botulinum, and other food-borne bacteria. This safety epoxy is made with a small amount of BPA, and only a tiny fraction of the BPA can transfer from the can lining into the food.
The hitch is that this trace amount of BPA would likely exceed the infinitesimally low level of 0.1 ppb permitted by AB1319, effectively leading to a ban on this safety epoxy. Because there is no replacement for most of these epoxies, consumers would be foolishly exposed to new and frightening health risks from unprotected food.
Many consumers have heard reports of studies in recent years purporting to show risks from BPA. In fact, such studies are not only flat-out wrong, but they were scientifically refuted in a comprehensive study released earlier this year that showed no discernable risk from BPA in normal consumer use. In research conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, human volunteers consumed a diet enriched with BPA, mostly from canned foods. Scientists then collected blood and urine samples each hour and measured the amount of BPA in their bodies.
Even though the volunteers consumed more BPA than an estimated 95 percent of the American population would consume under normal circumstances, researchers were unable to detect even the presence of BPA in the majority of blood samples, let alone any deleterious effects. The study also showed that human exposure to BPA was far lower than that which led to health effects in laboratory animals.
So meticulous and conclusive was this study that Great Britain's preeminent endocrinologist, professor Richard Sharpe of the Medical Research Council/Human Reproductive Sciences Unit at the Center for Reproductive Biology in Edinburgh, described it as "majestically scientific."
Critics of BPA routinely condemn such findings based on the source of funding for the research. But this particular project was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, preempting objections to the study as tainted by an association with industry.
The folly of the provisions in AB1319 is further demonstrated by comparing its unreasonable standard to that of the European Union. The EU safety standard for BPA in food currently stands at 600 ppb – 6,000 times higher than the level proposed for California – and the European Food Safety Agency is proposing an increase of this safety threshold to 3,000 ppb based on the accumulated evidence, which shows no discernable risk from normal consumer exposure to BPA.
The absence of a scientific rationale for the restrictions in AB1319 could have repercussions far beyond California. Our state is routinely seen as a bellwether in many aspects of public policy, with other states and regulatory bodies later adopting positions established here. Were that to be the case with the 0.1 ppb BPA standard being debated in Sacramento, it's entirely possible that huge swaths of the American population would be placed at risk of illness or death because of de facto bans on the safety linings of food cans.
Our lawmakers in Sacramento have a choice. They can bow to the pressure of activist groups advancing an ill-advised agenda through the use of fear tactics or they can educate themselves on the available scientific evidence and reject the standards in AB1319. For the sake of public health and the safety of all Californians, from the youngest infant to the most elderly, our elected officials must choose the latter course of action.