The chemical industry rakes in $6 billion in sales of Bisphenol A each year. Global BPA sales have been growing by 7% a year mainly due to the increasing consumption of the chemical, which has gone up at an average rate of almost 10% per year from 2003 to 2006, driven mainly by polycarbonate demand. Asian markets especially China, which is the biggest, have also fueled demand for the chemical. Between 2000 and 2006, Asian BPA markets grew at an average of 13% per year.
New toxins are discovered everyday to be harmful to humans and stay in the news for a few days, disappearing as the excitement and analyses wane. But conflicting facts about Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, have stayed in the headlines for more than a year now. BPA, originally developed in 1891 as a synthetic estrogen, is now used as an industrial chemical to make polycarbonate plastic. It is the “hardening” agent widely used in hard plastic water bottles, baby feeding bottles and the lining of food and beverage cans, keeping contaminants out of canned goods and making plastics shatterproof. It is one of the top 50 products manufactured by the global chemical industry with global BPA production totaling 6.4 billion pounds per year, with the U.S. alone accounting for six million pounds each year.
BPA was suspected to be harmful for humans since the 1930s – its adverse effects on hormones was reported as early as 1936. But it was Patricia Hunt, a geneticist, who stumbled upon its risks by chance while exploring other topics of study in 1998. BPA grabbed international attention at the beginning of this year when several governments began questioning its safety, particularly its presence in plastic baby bottles. BPA leaches into food and liquids, particularly if heated. High levels of bisphenol A exposure have been linked to heart disease, diabetes and behavioral problems in adults, and developmental and brain effects in infants. It is known to mimic the hormone estrogen in the body, which can cause changes in developing fetuses and infants, and induce early puberty in girls. A study by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 95% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. The Environmental Protection Agency currently states that the “safe levels” of BPA stand at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight of a person per day. In other words, the amount consumed by a person everyday is far lower than the levels known to negatively affect humans. But concerned researchers point to animal studies that indicate that even low-dose exposure to the chemical may be associated with a variety of ills, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and reproductive problems.
At first, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled products with BPA as safe in early 2008. However, the agency agreed to recheck their opinion after a report by the federal National Toxicology Program insisted that BPA was indeed something to be concerned about, especially in infants who are the most susceptible. But even after the FDA revisited its findings, its most recent report brought out in October 2008 maintained that bisphenol A is safe. This led the federal watchdog’s own science advisory panel to criticize the FDA about its conclusions. The advisory panel pointed out that the FDA’s findings were skewed, because it left out a large number of studies. The FDA has again retorted that it will reassess the uncertainties in its report. Currently, the federal agency maintains that a BPA exposure level of five milligrams per kilogram per day is acceptable. But health officials have determined that BPA baby bottles can produce anywhere from seven micrograms per gram to 57.7 micrograms per gram of BPA.
While the controversy about BPA rages on, alternatives are beginning to spring up. Many states in the U.S. have reacted proactively by considering legislation that bans the usage of products containing BPA. In April, Canada became the first nation in the world to label BPA potentially hazardous. In October, the country announced its move to draft regulations that ban baby bottles containing the chemical. Plastic bottles that are 100% BPA-free are now being manufactured by a growing number of baby gear manufacturers, container companies and plastic bottle manufacturers. In fact, the BPA controversy may cause a paradigm shift in the way we package and heat food. This will not only impact the global chemical industry, but others as well. Plastic bottles, baby feeding bottles, and food containers made of BPA-free plastic or other alternative materials such as stainless steel and glass are clearly waiting in the wings.
Until a conclusion is reached, people the world over will continue to pop their frozen dinners packaged in BPA plastic containers into microwaves, sip their drinks from BPA bottles and sooth their crying infants with a warm bottle of formula. For now, the world awaits the final word on BPA.
Postcards from Around the World
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