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BPA Returns to the Consumer Stage

A recent issue of Consumer Reports contains results of a limited monitoring program that detected Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics that include some food packaging materials, in several of the 19 name-brand foods tested. While the findings were predictable, the article drew national headlines with its contention that consumers could be facing serious risks from exposure to BPA in their foods.

The controversy stems from the debate over what levels of consumer exposure to BPA should be of concern. The US Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority consider an acceptable daily level of BPA exposure to be 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. In contrast, the Consumer Reports article argues for an acceptable daily level of 0.0024 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day, which is more than 20,000 times lower than the U.S. and European levels. This much more strict level is based upon results of a single controversial study suggesting abnormal reproductive effects at low doses of BPA.

Consumer exposure from BPA continues to be very low. A comprehensive study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007 using urine samples from more than 2,000 individuals concluded that typical daily exposures to BPA are about one million times lower than the levels that showed no adverse effects on reproduction or development in comprehensive multigenerational animal studies.

Nov. 30, 2009 was the deadline for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to provide a safety assessment of BPA in foods, which it apparently did not meet. This deadline was self-imposed by the FDA after its science board recommended that the FDA consider findings of additional toxicological studies before determining an appropriate acceptable level of exposure. The Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee of the California Environmental Protection Agency recently reviewed BPA toxicology studies and reached the conclusion in July 2009 that BPA offered no clear evidence of developmental or reproductive harm to consumers.

Decisions as to the acceptability of exposure to chemicals such as BPA require a thorough review of exposure levels and toxicology information, with the ultimate decisions based upon a “weight of evidence” approach. The “pick-and-choose” approach advocated in the Consumer Reports article is unlikely to sway scientific opinion regardless of its impact of raising fears and distrust among consumers.

Carl WinterCarl K. Winter, Ph.D.
Director, FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist
Department of Food Science and Technology
University of California

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