The 25-year controversy involving BPA in food packaging
won't go away. It continues to hang ominously like a black
cloud over the food industry.
Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is a chemical used
primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy
resins. The polycarbonate is used in food contact materials such as
food containers and processing equip¬ment. Epoxy resins are
used in protective linings for a variety of canned foods and
beverages, including infant formula.
Over the years Health Canada (HC) conducted periodic reviews of
BPA to determine whether dietary exposure to it could pose a health
risk to consum¬ers. Based on the overall weight of evidence,
including reaffirmation by other international regulatory agencies
(notably the U.S., Europe and Japan), HC's Food Directorate has
concluded again unequivocally that the current dietary exposure to
BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health
risk to the general population, including newborns and infants. In
response to growing consumer concern, HC hosted a huge expert
meeting in November 2010 in collaboration with several national
regulatory authorities and international bodies such as the World
Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural
Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to review the current
science. The clear conclusion of this expert meeting confirmed th
at BPA was safe for food packaging. Moreover, HC has continued to
do a number of studies, reports and surveys, all of which are
posted online. HC has made a real effort to make the science
available to the lay public and to try to interpret it in ways that
the ordinary consumer can understand. HC's study of BPA levels
in canned drinks, for example, notes that a person would have to
consume 940 canned drinks in one day to reach the tolerable daily
Still, the issue is raging back in the media and the blogosphere
This latest anti-BPA crusade seems to have arisen from the recent
media re-discovery of BPA alarmist Dr. Frederick Vom Saal who has
made it clear that in his opinion "there is no scientific
argument... there is overwhelming evidence of harm."
France's recent decision to ban the manufacture, import, export
and marketing of all food containers containing BPA (effective in
2015) has added some scientific "credibility" to the
The controversy among scientists has often been personal and
bitter. Even highly respected Professor Richard Sharpe of the
UK's Medical Research Council was so angered by the bad science
of the critics of PBA that he wrote an essay in 2009 in which he
documented their consistent violation of the "fundamental
principles of scientific inquiry." Sharpe argued that the
"scientific mess" around PBA was caused by
"supposedly fellow scientists" who "literally play
loose with the scientific evidence." Not to be outdone, Vom
Saal insists that all the scientific studies that have found BPA
safe cannot be trusted because of an industry-funded conspiracy in
the United States. For scientists, that's serious
Even if there is little health risk, governments are forced to
waste scarce resources to respond to the perception of risk.
According to Professor Sharpe "repetitive work on bisphenol A
has sucked in tens, probably hundreds, of millions of dollars from
government bodies and industry which...looks increasingly like an
investment with a nil return." My colleague at Carleton
University's Food Science and Nutrition Program,
internationally recognized professor of chemistry David Miller,
shares this concern: "The unsaid danger here is how much money
and effort is being put on BPA instead of things that might have a
larger health impact."
The continuing BPA controversy highlights another important
issue—the problems that scientific uncertainty pose for
government regulators. Professor Sharpe thinks that the basic
problem is that "politicians—people in decision-making
positions—don't understand uncertainty." Maybe. In
my experience, it is just as problematic that most scientists
don't understand the regulatory system. Integrating
science-based risk assessment and policy-based risk management is
diabolical in its complexity, yet one of the most important public
policy challenges of our time.
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