For the Chemical Industry, Too Much is Never Enough

 In Wednesday's Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton reported on a recent study examining the impact of the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), on the reproductive systems of human males (as the story notes, previous studies have been of mice and rats). The study, which was funded by the federal government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), linked workplace exposure to elevated levels of BPA to erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems. According to one of the scientists at Kaiser Foundation Research Institute, which conducted the study, the men who handled BPA were four times as likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and seven times as likely to have difficulty with ejaculation compared with workers in factories where BPA was not present.  The story is concise and well-written and I recommend that anybody who is interested take a few minutes to read it in full.  The San Francisco Chronicle also ran a story about the study which quotes my NRDC colleague Dr. Sarah Janssen.

Bisphenol A is a ubiquitous chemical used in plastics, food and beverage can linings, and other consumer products such as baby bottles, sippy cups and reusable water bottles.  More than 90 percent of people tested in the United States have residues of BPA present in their urine, and BPA has also been found in amniotic fluid and breast milk.  BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical that mimics estrogen.  Laboratory animal studies have linked exposure to BPA to reproductive harm and increased susceptibility of some kinds of cancer.  Many people have begun to hear more about BPA in recent years because of the growing number of scientific studies that call into serious question its safety. 

One aspect of the Post story that jumped out at me was the response of the chemical industry.  Steven Hentges, the spokesman for the chemical manufacturing industry's main trade association, (called the American Chemistry Council) acknowledged that the study contained "interesting information" but opined that the study "has little relevance to average consumers who are exposed to trace levels of BPA." 

In the first place, his statement suggests a distinction between "workers" and "consumers" as though a worker isn't also a consumer, or that a "consumer" shouldn't concern him or herself with either the well-being of "workers," or the implications of chemicals that harm workers to which the general public is also routinely exposed.  A broader and more generous view of the relationship between public health and policies for controlling toxic chemicals would be that chemicals should be safe enough that neither consumers or workers are at risk of cancer, reproductive harm, or any other illness or chronic disease or condition as a result of exposure.  The study reported in the Post was done on workers in factories in China, but BPA is also manufactured in the United States, and there are no workplace safety standards in place for exposure to BPA. Presumably those workers, whether in the U.S. or China, have some reason to be concerned about their health.  The chemical industry has a responsibility to protect its workers, as well as the general public, from unsafe chemicals, and should not be shrugging off these types of study results as merely "interesting" or "irrelevant." Awareness of that responsibility is notably absent from Mr. Hentges' comment to the Post.

Second, the chemical industry is doing the public a serious disservice by dismissing out of hand the relevance of the recent study.  The industry is well aware of other relevant facts about BPA, though it prefers not to discuss them: the population-wide exposure, and the continuous exposure (BPA is rapidly excreted and then replenished in our bodies by new exposures); the growing body of science documenting the potential health impacts of even low doses of some chemicals, as well as the greater understanding about the potential importance of the timing and duration of exposure during critical windows of development.  Strong confirmation with human evidence that exposure to high doses of BPA can cause serious sexual dysfunction is most certainly "relevant" to the tens of millions of people who are exposed to BPA every day, who carry it in their bodies (along with dozens or hundreds of other toxic chemicals), and who want protection from unsafe chemicals and products that contain those chemicals.  In a column published a few days before the Post story, Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network had it just right when he said to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times: "When you have 92 percent of the American population exposed to a chemical, this is not one where you want to be wrong." (Steve Hentges also makes an appearance in the Kristof column).

Speaking of which, how does Mr. Hentges know that the public is only exposed to "trace amounts" of BPA?  And, even assuming his statement is correct, where are those trace amounts coming from? And why are they seemingly constant?  The public would surely like to know, and has a right to know, all of the places BPA is currently used, which uses result in human exposure, and how much exposure.  How much BPA is released into the air?  Is it in our water supplies? Is it in our food? What food?  How much? How often?  How is it getting into babies?  How is it getting into unborn babies?  Who makes BPA and where do they make it and how much do they make? How much exposure occurs at the workplace? All of that information seems potentially "relevant" to consumers (and workers) who need it to decide for themselves whether or not they want to take a chance of being exposed to BPA, trace amounts or otherwise.  Is the industry willing to share this information with the public?  Why should the public have to wait for a new law to be written, or for EPA to issue a rulemaking (which can take months or years) to get the information?  If the chemical industry is so certain about its safety, why isn't it being up front with everything it knows about BPA, as opposed to patronizing the public with statements about what information is relevant? 

Mr. Hentges is nearly as ubiquitous as BPA itself; and it seems as though he can be found in more than 90 percent of the stories about the chemical, always resolutely defending its safety.  The problem isn't Mr. Hentges, but his message, which severely undercuts the credibility of an industry that is struggling to rebrand itself as committed to serious reform of our country's law for ensuring the safety of chemicals used in commerce, and to protecting the public from unsafe chemicals.  See for example the industry's misleading website, under the (dis)guise of the "Coalition for Chemical Safety." Gee, that picture of the worker's gloves and hard hat is a nice touch!  My colleague Richard Denison of EDF did a nice dissection of the industry's website in his excellent blog which you can read here.

NRDC is part of the Safer Chemicals Health Families campaign that is working for meaningful reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Our platform calls for expanding the public right to know about the health impacts of chemicals, as well as where they are used and how people are exposed.  It also calls for immediate action to reduce or eliminate exposure to the worst chemicals.  The chemical industry also claims to support right to know, and the need to protect the public from unsafe chemicals.  But when it comes to BPA and other chemicals, whether it is formaldehyde, lead, asbestos, or phthalates, the industry is steadfast in its resistance to acknowledging potential harm, or the need to reduce (or eliminate) human exposures.

Given its track record, and its current posture as reflected in the Post story, why should people trust the chemical industry?