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“The Slip Between the Cup and the Lip”: The FDA’s Lax Regulation of Potentially Harmful Products

April 24, 2013

Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) is a chemical often used in plastic bottles, most often the durable, reusable Nalgene-style water bottles (though the Nalgene company assures consumers it does not use BPA in any of its products). BPA is used in keeping plastic tough while retaining flexibility, and is often present in toys, safety equipment, thermal paper (sales receipts), and the insides of aluminum food cans. However, it has been found (often when heated) to leach from bottles and other containers into foods and beverages. This has been linked with, and is suspected of, affecting the endocrine system and causing harmful hormonal changes.

Specifically, BPA exposure (according to TIME magazine) has been linked to “behavior problems, obesity, hormone abnormalities, and even kidney and heart problems.” CBS News reports, “Previous studies have linked BPA exposure to behavioral disorders, cancer, immune system problems, and reproductive disorders.” In addition to all of these things, high levels of the chemical have also been associated with diabetes, early puberty, learning disabilities, and asthma in children. Columbia University Professor Kathleen Donohue writes, “Asthma prevalence has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, which suggests that some as-yet-undiscovered environmental exposures may be implicated. Our study indicates that one such exposure may be BPA.”

BPA has been in the news very recently because the California Environmental Protection Agency has added it to its list of dangerous chemicals. This means that manufacturers must now warn consumers in California when BPA is present in food, water, and the air. This comes only a few months after the FDA officially announced that BPA would not be allowed in baby bottles or children’s “sippy” cups. California is often the first state in the country to address environmental and chemical issues, so we may expect similar actions from other states or even a federal ban on BPA. At the current time, however, the FDA claims that there is not enough evidence that the chemical negatively affects anyone beyond early childhood.

Bryan Walsh writes (also in TIME) about the FDA’s position in refusing to outlaw the “so-called endocrine disrupter,” explaining that we simply do not know how harmful this chemical is in small doses. He writes, “Human beings are exposed to such tiny amounts of BPA–perhaps 0.2 micrograms per kg of bodyweight per day for adults, well below the 24-year-old federal safety threshold of 50 micrograms per kg. If BPA is a threat to human health–and many scientists believe it is–the damage is being done in microscopic doses.” The FDA has argued that studies are inconclusive, but health and environmental groups disagree, claiming that the FDA review process takes so long that people continue to be harmed while evaluations drag on for years. Walsh continues: “‘I cannot stress enough that this is not a final safety decision on BPA,’ FDA spokesman Douglas Karas said after the ruling.”

Clearly BPA will not go away anytime soon, and controversy will remain about whether or not it poses a threat to human health. The FDA has shown its relative inability to regulate harmful substances. Those exposed to unregulated toxic substances who now exhibit symptoms like those listed above should seek legal representation to establish whether or not they have a potential claim.


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