Is BPA safe? Why leading scientists say we shouldn’t trust the FDA

To start with, its big study lacked a control group

Topics: BPA, FDA, NIH, Food safety, environmental toxins,

Despite it being the authority on food and drugs, the FDA doesn’t get them all right (see, for example, its halfhearted response to antibiotic resistance). But in response to a study released last month showing that BPA, in contrast to all you’ve heard about it, is actually safe, a dozen leading scientists say that the FDA isn’t just wrong — it’s “border[ing] on scientific misconduct.” Mother Jones reports on the behind-the-scenes scandal:

On a conference call the previous summer, officials from the FDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had informed these researchers that the lab where the study was housed was contaminated. As a result, all of the animals—including the supposedly unexposed control group—had been exposed to BPA. The FDA made the case that this didn’t affect the outcome, but their academic counterparts believed it cast serious doubt on the study’s findings. “It’s basic science,” says Gail S. Prins, a professor of physiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was on the call. “If your controls are contaminated, you’ve got a failed experiment and the data should be discarded. I’m baffled that any journal would even publish this.”

Yet the FDA study glossed over this detail, which was buried near the end of the paper. Prins and her colleagues also complain that the paper omitted key information—including the fact that some of them had found dramatic effects in the same group of animals. “The way the FDA presented its findings is so disingenuous,” says one scientist, who works closely with the agency. “It borders on scientific misconduct.”

Lack of a control group aside (which anyone who’s taken elementary school science knows is pretty darn important), the article has a lot more detail about how the FDA’s release of the study undermines a larger, interagency collaboration on BPA research; ultimately, one of the researchers involved told Mother Jones, it may end up “throwing millions of taxpayer dollars down the toilet.” And it reminds us that the FDA’s assurances run counter to a whole lot of peer-reviewed research suggesting otherwise:

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In contrast to the FDA’s recent paper, roughly 1,000 published studies have found that low-level exposure to BPA—a synthetic estrogen that is also used in cash register receipts and the lining of tin cans—can lead to serious health problems, from cancer and insulin-resistant diabetes to obesity and attention-deficit disorder. In some cases, the effects appear to be handed down, with the chemical reprogramming an individual’s genes and causing disease in future generations.

But the agencies that regulate BPA and other chemicals have largely ignored this research in favor of industry data showing BPA is safe. A 2008 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that the FDA had relied on industry lobbyists to track and evaluate research on BPA. It also found that the agency’s assessment of BPA’s safety was based largely on two industry-funded studies—one of which turned out to have “fatal flaws,” according to leading researchers in the field. Both studies also relied on a breed of rat, known as the Charles River Sprague Dawley, that is all but immune to the effects of synthetic estrogens like BPA.

NPR, among many other media outlets, may have been premature in pronouncing, last month, that “Maybe that BPA in your canned food isn’t so bad after all.” The science, it would seem, is far from settled.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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