BPA-Heart Disease Link Fails to Ruffle FDA
If there was a hit list of the nasty chemicals cited most often, bisphenol-A (BPA), might top the charts. It seems that barely a month goes by without the appearance of some new study that points to the deadly consequences of exposure to the stuff (and we've all been exposed, but more on that later).
The latest research to hit the news concerns the fact that BPA appears strongly linked to coronary heart disease. Scientists at the University of Exeter in Great Britain reviewed data revealing BPA concentrations in the urine samples of 1,493 adult subjects. They found that those with the highest concentrations of BPA were twice as likely to have coronary heart disease compared to those with the lowest levels. And the thing that makes the data doubly damning is that this is the second study to find just those results.
In both studies, the researchers reviewed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one of the largest studies ever done examining health and nutrition. The first study, completed in 2008, analyzed 1493 urine samples, drawn in 2003 and 2004, for BPA content. The recent study looked at 1455 samples taken from a different group of subjects between 2005 and 2006. Both studies revealed a strong association between higher rates of BPA and the heightened risk of heart disease. In fact, the first study found three times the risk of heart disease plus a two-and-a-half times risk of diabetes associated with high BPA levels. Subjects with high BPA levels also had elevated liver enzymes. The diabetes and liver enzyme link was replicated in the second study, although the risk was far reduced.
The reason for the lowered diabetes and liver results may be that the levels of BPA detected in the 2004-2005 subjects were 30 percent lower, on average, than the levels found in subjects a few years earlier. This is the good news aspect of the study -- BPA levels actually appear to be dropping. The researchers believe this may be a result of growing public awareness of the dangers of BPA. More people now know, for instance, that plastics contain BPA and that heating it releases the BPA content. And so, fewer people now nuke plastic containers in the microwave or leave water bottles out in the sun. Also, it may be that canned good consumption has declined, say the researchers, noting that cans often have a BPA-enhanced lining.
But even in the second sample, 25 percent of the subjects had notably high levels of BPA -- notable enough, as mentioned above, to double their heart-disease risk. As study co-director Tamara Galloway points out, "If you see it once, that's interesting. If you see it twice in a separate population, it's a strong indication that what you're seeing is not just some chance finding." In any event, if that 25 percent factor holds for the population at large, that puts a huge number of people at risk given that BPA is pervasive worldwide. As Dr. Frederick vom Saal, a BPA expert at the University of Missouri, says, "Expand that [25 percent figure] to six billion people -- roughly the world's current population -- and you've got a billion people in harm's way [due to BPA]." This threat is compounded by the fact that the researchers believe their study drastically underestimates the number of people adversely affected by BPA because of the relatively small sample size, meaning that far more than a billion people might be at risk from BPA exposure.
I've written before that the risk, unfortunately, extends far beyond heart disease and diabetes. Over 150 peer-reviewed studies have linked BPA exposure to issues including cancer, Alzheimer's, Down syndrome, obesity, and developmental and reproductive abnormalities. Even with the growing awareness, BPA remains pervasive in products and the environment at large. As of last year, 95-percent of all baby bottles on the market contained the chemical. It is still found universally in food wrappers, canned foods, and plastic containers. BPA has been found in the urine of 90% of the population, and in spite of all the bad press the chemical gets, Business Wire just posted a report projecting that BPA sales would actually increase by up to three percent from 2010 to 2015.
It seems, though, that no amount of evidence, no avalanche of studies, nothing at all will move the FDA from its refusal to impose limitations on BPA. Although the agency recently (at last) admitted there "may" be some problem with the stuff, that admission is clouded by language that borders on a retraction. The official statement reads:
"At this interim stage, FDA shares the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. FDA also recognizes substantial uncertainties with respect to the overall interpretation of these studies and their potential implications for human health effects of BPA exposure." In other words, the 152 studies now on the books can't possibly be right, but we'll look into it when we get around to it. In the meantime, we need to get back to our real work of keeping alternative health products off the market.
Meanwhile, FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg has issued a separate statement saying, "At this time, we share the perspective of the NTP [National Toxicology Program] of some concern of health effects of BPA. This means we need to know more." The agency does suggest that people take reasonable steps to limit exposure, but still holds that BPA is probably safe, even for infants. In fact, their statement issued on January 10, 2010, says, "FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods, as the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk from BPA exposure."
The facts are clear. At this point in time, you can't depend on the FDA to protect you from BPA. Do your best to avoid the stuff. Use glass instead of plastic whenever you can, if you must use plastic do not heat it, and avoid canned goods unless they explicitly state that the container has no BPA.