A Glacial Pace: the FDA Lets Decades Go By without Acting on Own Health Warnings

In the past few years, Americans have grown concerned about the risks of pumping farm animals with antibiotics. Recent reports of antibiotic-resistant superbugs jumping from livestock to people have inspired consumers to demand antibiotic-free meat from grocery stores and restaurant chains. This may seem like a new trend in healthy living, but the truth is government officials warned about the hazards using antibiotics in animal feed nearly four decades ago. They just haven’t done much about it.

Back in 1970, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration asked a group of scientists to study the practice of lacing animal feed with antibiotics. In 1972, the scientists issued a report saying the practice increased the risk of drug-resistant bacteria. In 1977, the FDA issued an official finding concluding that using antibiotics in animal feed was a threat to human health.

What did the agency do with that finding? Next to nothing. It stalled, dragged its heels, and busied itself with issuing voluntary guidelines for 34 years until NRDC sued the FDA last May and a judge ordered the agency to start protecting the public and follow the law. Not surprisingly, the agency has now appealed our two back-to-back public health victories to avoid taking real action.

It’s bad enough the FDA has left generations of Americans vulnerable to infections that can be difficult or impossible to cure. But this isn’t the only instance in which the agency’s inaction has led to grave and even deadly consequences. The latest edition of NRDC’s OnEarth Magazine features an exposé by Barry Estabrook revealing that time and again the agency has failed to protect Americans from harm.

One of the agency’s singular failures is letting decades go by without acting on proven health risks. Sometimes the agency writes draft standards but never finalizes them. It launches review cycles, runs down the clock, and then starts the process over again. All the while, people are buying unsafe products and eating unsafe food.

The 35-year delay on important antibiotics is just one of many examples. The FDA is following a similarly glacial timeline on another known risk: triclosan.  Back in 1978, the agency proposed removing triclosan from antibacterial hand soaps. Research had shown that triclosan not only posed a threat to vital organs including the brain, liver, and spleen, but it wasn’t even shown to be effective against bacteria.

Yet the agency never finalized the monograph regulating its use. Three decades later, Americans spend almost $1 billion on “antibacterial” soaps and other products containing triclosan and its chemical cousin, triclocarbon. The use of triclosan has become so widespread that studies found residues of this hormone disruptor in 75 percent of Americans over the age of six. And now there even more scientific studies documenting its shortcomings.

A new article at OnEarth.org describes some of the new research, including one done by epidemiologists at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and one done by an immunologist at Johns Hopkins that show a link between elevated levels of triclosan and allergies in children. Recent studies have also confirmed triclosan is largely ineffective. The OnEarth article quotes Allison Aiello, a University of Michigan epidemiologist who examined 27 studies of triclosan and concluded, “Triclosan doesn’t provide any benefit above and beyond soap. This is a case where the risk outweighs the benefit.”

NRDC has filed a lawsuit to push the agency to finally finish the antimicrobial rule it started three decades ago. We also filed suit to make the agency respond to a petition asking FDA to ban the use of BPA in canned foods and other containers. Years of scientific research have confirmed that BPA interferes with estrogen and alters development of the brain and reproductive organs such as the prostate and breast tissues. More than 90 percent of Americans carry residues of the chemical in their bodies. The evidence is so strong that eleven states have decided to regulate BPA and consumer outrage has grown so intense that companies have already removed BPA from many products.

Yet rather than prohibiting the use of this dangerous chemical, the FDA denied NRDC’s petition and said it will “continue our review and study of emerging data.” Hopefully it won’t take 30 years to reach a decision. The FDA’s paralysis isn’t just a procedural or political problem. It is a threat to our health. Each time the agency fails to act on a known risk, our families continue to be exposed to chemicals linked to superbugs, neurological and reproductive problems, even cancer.

FDA’s mandate is to protect our food, our health and our families.  That requires them to heed the science, stand up to those who work to obfuscate it, and protect our health.  It’s time for FDA to start doing its job.

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