For years, independent scientists have been raising concerns about Bisphenol-A, a chemical commonly found in plastics, the lining of cans and other products so common in American commerce that it's virtually impossible to go a day without using one.
For years, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the use of these chemicals, stood by the plastics industry position that the chemical was safe, despite studies on laboratory animals that showed the chemical, also referred to as BPA, could disrupt the normal activity of hormones. So-called endocrine disruptors can have a range of effects on the body, because at minute levels they can disrupt the chemical messenging system that regulates the reproductive, developmental and other systems of the body.
For years, consumer advocates, environmentalists and a few concerned citizens have done all they can to tell the public that many products, including plastic baby bottles, might be harming their children, born and unborn.
Then in April, the National Toxicology Program in April became the first federal agency to raise concerns about the safety of the ubiquitous chemical, when it said there was "some concern" BPA might affect the neural and behavioral development of fetuses, infants and children at levels people are currently exposed to, and that the health implications could be wide-ranging, from damaging the prostate gland and the breasts, to possibly causing early-onset puberty in girls.
Late on Friday, the FDA announced that a subcommittee of its Science Board would review the safety of Bisphenol A and report back before the end of the year on its findings.
There are three reasons to think that there's less going on than the normal functioning of a bureaucracy though.
The announcement came very late in the day on a Friday. That's typically the time government makes announcements it doesn't want noticed. Why? Every reporter in the country is about to get off work, the government bureaucrats have typically left the building, other sources that might offer expert commentary have exited. There's an information vacuum. That, and there's less news consumed on Friday night and Saturday than just about any time of the week, so if you want to bury a news item, make sure it breaks then.
Tuesday, the FDA will face an unsympathetic panel in Congress. The Committee on Energy and Commerces Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection will hold a hearing titled, Safety of Phthalates and Bisphenol-A in Everyday Consumer Products. Phthalates, like Bisphenol-A, are ubiquitous plastic chemicals with difficult-to-pronounce names and a history of causing health problems in laboratory animals.
The committee has been investigating the health risk of using these chemicals, and has raised credible concerns about the misuse and manipulation of science by industry and government agencies to justify the continued use in the face of independent science that raises health concerns.
The FDA will testify, as will representatives of the National Toxicology Program and other federal agencies, California's regulatory agencies which have taken a tougher stance on the use of these chemicals as well as advocates who have fought to reduce the use of Bishpenol A and phthalates.
Until now, the FDA has been on the side of industry, downplaying any potential health problems associated with these common chemicals. It's role as a credible watchdog for American health is being called into question, not for the first time.
So the FDA has good reason to tell the world it is looking hard into the problem. And it has good reason for the world not to pay too much attention.
This Bill Moyers Journal video offers great background on the issue:
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