EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with ACC’s Steve Hentges about bisphenol A
Bisphenol A, a chemical used in the production of polycarbonate plastic, has been in the news recently: a Canadian ...
Bisphenol A, a chemical used in the production of polycarbonate plastic, has been in the news recently: a Canadian retailer banned bottles with bisphenol A from its shelves, and the province of Ontario is looking into the chemical’s health effects.
To provide a better understanding of the chemical and the issues surrounding it, Canadian Plastics posed 10 questions to Steve Hentges of the American Chemistry Council‘s Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group.
There suddenly seems to be a lot of media and public attention surrounding the use of bisphenol A in plastic products. What factors have contributed to the increase in public interest?
Underlying the recent attention is the interest in bisphenol A by scientists, who have conducted quite a few studies on bisphenol A in recent years. New scientific information that is relevant to the safety of common consumer products is routinely reviewed by government bodies, for example Health Canada, with responsibility for regulating those products.
The combination of new scientific information and government reviews alone can generate attention when the safety of common products is in question. In addition, some environmental activists have taken advantage of the circumstances to indulge in scaremongering regarding the safety of consumer products.
While scaremongering may receive an inordinate amount of attention, what is often overlooked or poorly reported are the views of the many government bodies worldwide who have already reviewed the science, all of which supports the conclusion that bisphenol A is not a risk to human health, in particular at the trace levels found in some consumer products.
Can you briefly summarize some of the scientific research surrounding bisphenol A?
In recent years, a hypothesis has been advanced that suggests that bisphenol A can cause health effects at very low doses by disrupting the endocrine system. This hypothesis has stimulated quite a few studies on laboratory animals to test whether bisphenol A may cause various reproductive or developmental effects. These studies vary widely in size, scope, quality, and perhaps most importantly, relevance to human health.
The most comprehensive studies, conducted over multiple generations of laboratory animals according to internationally accepted guidelines, have consistently confirmed the absence of any adverse health effects at low doses. In contrast, the many small-scale studies are not consistent among themselves, and their findings have not been replicated or corroborated in independent laboratories. Replication is a hallmark of science and studies that cannot be replicated cannot be accepted as valid. Many of the small-scale studies are also of limited relevance to human health.
Government bodies around the world have evaluated the weight of scientific evidence from all relevant studies in comprehensive reviews. These reviews consistently support the conclusion that bisphenol A is not a risk to human health at the extremely low levels to which people may be exposed.
Much of the negative attention surrounding bisphenol A pegs the chemical as an endocrine disruptor. Is this a foregone conclusion, or is there still some uncertainty regarding the health impact of bisphenol A?
The term “endocrine disruptor,” which is often loosely used, refers to substances that cause adverse health effects by disruption of the endocrine system. The weight of scientific evidence, as reviewed by government and scientific bodies around the world, show that bisphenol A does not cause adverse health effects at any level remotely close to actual human exposure levels.
Based on these reviews, designating bisphenol A as an endocrine disruptor is incorrect. Of most importance though, these reviews consistently support the conclusion that bisphenol A is not a risk to human health at the extremely low levels to which people may be exposed.
In Canada, bisphenol A is also under review by the federal government’s Chemicals Management Plan. However, the Ontario government also recently announced that it would appoint a panel as part of the province’s new toxins reduction strategy. What are your thoughts on this initiative?
For many years we have supported and conducted scientific research to understand whether bisphenol A has the potential to cause health effects and to support scientifically sound public policy. We thus welcome the opportunity to participate in the evaluation of bisphenol A now being conducted by Health Canada under the Canadian Chemicals Management Plan.
With the Health Canada review of bisphenol A now underway, and with many other chemicals also being evaluated, it is not clear whether the Ontario initiative will add value or will be duplicative of these ongoing efforts at the federal level.
We are awaiting more detailed information on the Ontario initiative to understand the goals and scope. In general though, a single federal initiative is more sensible than a patchwork of local initiatives.
Canadian retailer Mountain Equipment Co-op recently became one of the first to remove polycarbonate products from its shelves, citing public health concerns. What does this mean manufacturers who currently supply polycarbonate products? Is this an isolated incident or environmental fad, or will this incident cause a chain reaction among retailers?
Bisphenol A and polycarbonate plastic have a long track record of safe use and an equally long track record of safety testing. Government bodies around the world have reviewed bisphenol A and, in every case, these reviews strongly support the safety of consumer products made from polycarbonate plastic. The action by Mountain Equipment Co-op, while done with good intentions, is not likely to have any impact on the health and safety of their customers, especially since no alternative has been so well tested or evaluated.
While we cannot predict what other retailers may do, there is no basis in science to remove safe products from their shelves and reduce consumer choice. We are optimistic that once Health Canada competes their review of bisphenol A, Mountain Equipment Co-op will again stock the trusted products that their customers have relied upon for years.
What can polycarbonate product manufacturers and other producers who use bisphenol A do to protect their brands and products from bisphenol A-related health scares?
Scares regarding bisphenol A and common consumer products make from polycarbonate plastic are rooted in misinformation. The best defense may be a good offense to ensure that complete and balanced information is available for consumers to make decisions based on facts rather than sensational scare stories based on fear.
What initiatives is the American Chemistry Council spearheading to dispel misinformation and raise public awareness about bisphenol A?
The safety of our products is our top priority. The Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group engages in activities ranging from scientific research through communication with the scientific community, government agencies, our customers, retailers and consumers. At each step our goal is to ensure that complete and balanced information is available to maintain confidence in the safety and integrity of our products and to support sound decisions.
To your knowledge, has any government body placed restrictions on the use of bisphenol A?
The science supporting the safety of bisphenol A has been comprehensively examined by government bodies around the world. In every case, these reviews support the conclusion that bisphenol A is not a risk to human health at the trace residual levels present in consumer products made from polycarbonate plastic. Based on these reviews, bisphenol A and polycarbonate plastic are not banned or restricted anywhere in the world. Quite the opposite, a comprehensive review of bisphenol A published in 2007 by the European Food Safety Authority conc
luded by increasing their safe level of bisphenol A (known as Tolerable Daily Intake) by a factor of 5. This review, and other similar reviews worldwide, strongly support the safety and continued use of bisphenol A and polycarbonate plastic.
What is/are the benefit(s) of using bisphenol A in polycarbonate plastic?
The largest use for bisphenol A is to make polycarbonate plastic, which has a unique combination of attributes that make it useful in a wide array of products.
Among other properties, polycarbonate is lightweight, highly shatter-resistant and has good optical clarity and heat resistance. Common consumer products made from polycarbonate include CDs and DVDs, bicycle helmets, eyeglass lenses, incubators, components of medical devices, electronic product housings, automotive components, home food storage containers, and baby bottles.
Bisphenol A and polycarbonate plastic have been safely used for 50 years to make these products and many more. No alternative has been so well studied or so well vetted by government agencies.
Can you quantify the level of exposure to bisphenol A that can be expected from consumers purchasing baby bottles, or other plastic products that contain this chemical?
In the manufacturing process for polycarbonate plastic, virtually all of the bisphenol A is chemically reacted to form the plastic. Only trace residual levels of bisphenol A, typically less than 60 parts per million, remain in the finished plastic. Consequently, there are no consumer products that contain significant levels of bisphenol A and it is not possible for consumers to contact bisphenol A at harmful levels from use of consumer products.
This has been recently confirmed in a population-scale biomonitoring study conducted by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC) that measured the level of bisphenol A in human urine. Bisphenol A is rapidly excreted after exposure into urine in the form of biologically inactive metabolites, which make analysis of urine an ideal way to directly measure human exposure.
This study showed that typical human exposure to bisphenol A from all sources is approximately 1,000 times below the safe level recently set by the European Food Safety Authority based on their comprehensive review.