Committee Successful in Labeling BPA Threat to Reproductive Health

by Jill Replogle , California Progress Report

Democratic lawmakers vowed to press for a ban on a widely used chemical suspected of contributing to developmental problems and cancer, despite a separate state panel’s refusal to declare it to be a threat.

‘It shows you the effectiveness of the chemical lobby over science,’ said Senator Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica), who authored a bill that would ban the chemical, bisphenol-A, in food and beverage containers for children.

On Wednesday, industry representatives celebrated a victory when California’s main science advisory panel on reproductive toxicity declined to declare that bisphenol-A, which is commonly found in food cans and plastic bottles, is a threat to reproductive health.

Appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee voted unanimously not to list the chemical known as BPA as a reproductive toxin, saying the evidence was inconclusive.

‘As I read it now, the literature is confusing,’ said committee member Carl Keen, a professor from the UC Davis Department of Nutrition. ‘It doesn’t meet my definition of clear.’

Several committee members echoed his sentiment.

Environmental health advocates said the decision showed the committee was behind the times and overly reliant on industry-backed research on BPA.

But Pavley she was undaunted, despite heavy lobbying from the chemical and packaged food industries. She plans to press for a final vote on her bill, SB 767, when the Legislature returns from its summer recess in August.

‘The lobbying pressure has been intense,’ said Pavley, adding that what seems to be a nationally-orchestrated industry campaign is ‘zeroing in on California.’ She said lobbyists have argued that hers and other bills that would curb chemical use should wait until the governor’s long-trumpeted Green Chemistry Initiative is up and running.

‘Unfortunately, that’s not up and running right now and may not be next year,’ said Pavley. In the meantime, she said, ‘there are 550,000 children born in California every year that will be needlessly exposed [to BPA].’

Pavley faces a tough fight, given the lobby forces aligned against her.

Defenders of BPA include the American Chemistry Council, California Chamber of Commerce, Chemical Industry Council of California, other trade groups representing grocers, food processors, and groups that work to limit the right to sue.

Altogether, the groups spent nearly $1.6 million on lobbying in the first three months of 2009, and more than $50 million so far this decade.

The groups and member companies also are among the heaviest campaign donors. For example, Dow Chemical, a major producer of BPA, has donated more than $375,000 to state so far this decade.

Backers of the measure are not without their support. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) backs Pavley’s bill, as do influential unions.

The bill is co-sponsored by the Environmental Working Group and the Breast Cancer Fund, and supported by the California League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Planned Parenthood, Consumers Union, and Consumer Federation of California, publisher of the California Progress Report.

Dozens of supporters of state action to curb BPA spoke at the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee meeting on Wednesday. After the vote, many stormed out of the auditorium in Oakland where the meeting was held.

‘This is extremely disappointing,’ said Gretchen Lee Salter from the Breast Cancer Fund. ‘It’s really a shame there aren’t scientists on the panel qualified to analyze 21st Century science.’

The Natural Resources Defense Council immediately challenged the committee’s decision, filing a petition to have the chemical listed via an alternative mechanism by the state’s toxics watchdog, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, OEHHA.

‘We hope the agency [OEHHA] will be less influenced by industry-supported tactics,’ said Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Solomon said the Schwarzenegger-appointed committee was ‘misled’ by industry-funded research and industry representatives who testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

Under the 1986 Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, better known as Proposition 65, the state is required to publish a list annually of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. If the committee had listed BPA, products containing the chemical could have been required to carry a label warning consumers of their risk of exposure.

BPA has been used in food products for more than 50, especially in the epoxy resin that lines metal food cans and glass jar tops. It’s also found in many plastic products, including baby and water bottles, and dental sealants and composites. BPA is known to leach from both food containers and dental composites. The chemical is so widespread that it has been found in 93% of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Numerous studies on animals have shown BPA may affect reproductive organs and functions as well as fetal health. But very few studies have been conducted on humans.

Evidence that BPA mimics the hormone, estrogen, was first shown through tests in the 1930s, but the chemical began to attract public and regulator attention only in recent years.

The National Toxicology Program, housed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, published a report on BPA last year noting ‘some concern’ about the effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children at current exposure levels.

‘The possibility of adverse health effects cannot be dismissed,’ states a National Toxicology fact sheet on BPA.

Canada banned the use of BPA in plastic baby bottles last year, while Minnesota and Connecticut both passed laws banning BPA in certain baby products this year. Two bills in Congress’one introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer, the other by Congressman Edward Markey’seek to ban BPA in food and beverage containers.

The industry is fighting hard to save a multi-billion dollar industry. In a May 2009 article, The Washington Post detailed the industry’s strategy, including using ‘fear tactics’ and ‘befriending people that are able to manipulate the legislative process.’

Perhaps reflecting that strategy, William Hoyle, consultant to the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, told the committee that epoxy coatings are the ‘most effective way to protect the food product.’ He warned that there’s no known substitute for epoxy resin that’s suitable, tested and readily available, and that food producers would take products with BPA off the shelf because of too much liability.

Steven Hentges, Executive Director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group, an industry group, said BPA is not a hazard to human health because it is rapidly metabolized and excreted from the body. He also said the effects on reproductive health found in studies on rats and mice wouldn’t hold for humans because of the difference in how humans metabolize substances.

Anti-BPA advocates said the panel’s failure to list the chemical as a reproductive was a setback, but far from the end of the battle. ‘It would be a mistake to think the issue’s closed,’ said Solomon. ‘But the panel certainly made a mistake yesterday.’