Chemical Imbalance

Based on a new study, the FDA says a controvers­ial plastic is safe. Scientists remain wary

- BY KATE SHERIDAN @sheridan_kate


The Graduate famously predicted, a great future in plastics? Over the past decade, studies showing health risks posed by the chemical bisphenol A have prompted a mass shunning of potentiall­y unsafe plastic products. Based on recent research, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administra­tion is now saying the fear may be overblown.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is found in canned goods, food storage containers and other household items. Abundant past research in the U.S. and elsewhere has found that BPA might act as a hormone disruptor, messing with estrogen and other chemicals related to reproducti­on. Some small studies in humans spotted a link between BPA levels and polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder, and miscarriag­es. Others have not. But based on data from animal studies, California’s Environmen­tal Protection Agency warned in 2015 that BPA could cause “reproducti­ve toxicity” in women.

The FDA’S website states otherwise: “The available informatio­n continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging.”

And new data appear to support that. Preliminar­y findings from a large study—a joint effort by the National Institutes of Health and the Fda—suggests the chemical is not dangerous. The study gave rats doses of BPA, at levels reflecting human exposure, and watched for any bodily changes. They were specifical­ly interested in whether the rats sexually matured as expected and whether they developed any diseases.

In late February, the researcher­s announced their first findings. In a statement from the FDA, Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the agency’s deputy commission­er for foods and veterinary medicine, declared that the study found “minimal effects for Bpa-dosed groups of rodents.”

Some scientists were alarmed by such a bold statement. “It was disappoint­ing to me to read that,” says Gail Prins, who is researchin­g ties between BPA and prostate cancer at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Prins was also dismayed by the rapid disseminat­ion of the statement to the news media. Based on the FDA statement, called BPA “unlikely to be harmful.” NPR, on the website for its show Shots, said it wasn’t much of a threat.

But that conclusion, says Prins, is based on rough measuremen­ts, such as the weight and appearance of the animals and their organs. “These are the [studies] that toxicology has been doing since the mid-20th century,” she says. Analyses using more advanced tools have linked even low levels of BPA exposure with hormonal changes.

The data on which Ostroff ’s pronouncem­ent were based have not been peer reviewed or published in a major medical journal, two standard gatekeeper­s for validating research. And the findings weren’t all rosy: One group of mice developed more mammary gland tumors than control mice or those that received different doses of BPA.

The FDA statement included some caveats, but these were lost in the broader message that BPA is safe. “I’m not saying what they did was bad work,” says Prins. But the findings “are not complete.”

Experts will examine the data at an FDA review session on April 26. The report will be published in early August, but final conclusion­s won’t be available until August 2019. So the discussion will continue. “We’re at halftime right now,” says Prins. Until then, the future of plastics remains uncertain.

 ??  ?? EXPERT THINKING? The FDA’S conclusion, based on a study it co-funded, included caveats, but those were lost in the broader message that BPA is safe.
EXPERT THINKING? The FDA’S conclusion, based on a study it co-funded, included caveats, but those were lost in the broader message that BPA is safe.

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