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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Defending BPA

Air Date: Week of

Bisphenol-A has an image problem. The chemical, known as BPA, has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to obesity. But as lawmakers from Capitol Hill to California consider banning BPA in some products, industries that use it to line the cans of food and beverages are mounting a campaign to persuade the public that BPA is safe. Lyndsey Layton, staff writer for the Washington Post, talks with host Steve Curwood about the private, strategic meeting industry executives held to defend BPA.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

On June 2nd the California Senate approved a measure that would ban the use of Bisphenol-A in baby bottles, sippy cups and food containers. If the measure becomes law, California would join Minnesota, the city of Chicago and Canada as jurisdictions that outlaw such uses of the chemical.

Bisphenol-A, or BPA for short, can disrupt hormones, and has been linked to diseases ranging from breast and prostate cancers to diabetes and heart disease, as well as developmental disorders.

While many efforts to ban uses of BPA have focused on baby bottles and other infant paraphenalia, a bill in the House would also keep it out of the inner lining of soda and food cans.

Recently, Washington Post reporter, Lyndsey Layton obtained the internal notes of a private meeting called by some manufacturers of cans for foods and beverages as well as some of their major customers. Ms. Layton reported that these executives brainstormed for hours about ways to assuage public concerns over Bisphenol-A., and she joins us now. Hi there.

LAYTON: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So you heard that industry executives had this private meeting to help Bisphenol-A and its image. How did you hear about this and what happened exactly at this meeting?

LAYTON: Well I heard about the meeting through folks who are following this very carefully and I was able to obtain some internal notes that were put together by apparently one of the meeting participants. But it was a private meeting at a very exclusive private club in Washington. And these were largely members of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance. Those are the folks that make metal cans and metal packaging for food and beverages and some of their biggest clients like Coca Cola and Del Monte.

A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health suggests BPA leaches out of plastic bottles into the people who drink water from them.

CURWOOD: Why is it that the packaging industry is so concerned about Bisphenol-A?

LAYTON: Well Bisphenol-A is a ubiquitous chemical. It’s found in thousands of consumer products. It’s largely used in plastics, but it’s also used in the epoxy linings of metal cans to prevent corrosion. And industry is very concerned because there is a movement afoot around the country to ban Bisphenol-A from food packaging. There are mounting concerns about health effects of this chemical and there’ve been a lot of studies that show Bisphenol-A leaches from plastics and from epoxy linings into food. And the food is consumed, of course, by us.

CURWOOD: Now, the Food and Drug Administration has been saying all along that actually Bisphenol-A is fine. You’ve covered the FDA for a long time. The Bush administration came under fire for a number of scientific questions in research. In fact there are allegations of cooking the science. How careful was the FDA about the question of BPA in the Bush administration?

LAYTON: Well the FDA based its decision that BPA was safe largely on two studies, both of them were funded by the chemical industry. And they have taken a lot of heat for that. There are now more than a hundred studies that were done by independent and academic scientists that link BPA to a range of adverse health effects, breast cancer, hyperactivity, obesity. And the FDA’s own scientific review board last year lambasted the agency for basing its findings on these two studies funded by industry.

CURWOOD: How is Congress responding to the growing controversy over Bisphenol- A?

LAYTON: Well there are several measures that are pending. Some of them want to get Bisphenol-A out of all baby products. One of them, this is Congressman Markey from Massachusetts, wants to get BPA out of all food and beverage packaging. And on June 3rd Peggy Margaret Hamburg, the new administrator of the Food and Drug Administration, the new commissioner, was on Capital Hill. She was answering questions about a separate piece of legislation and Congressman Markey asked her directly about BPA. And she said as a mother and as a physician, I am concerned about BPA and we are taking a new look, a fresh look at all of the scientific literature around this. And I’ve tapped our new chief scientist to review it and get back to me by the fall. Which is the first time that we’ve seen that from somebody in leadership at the FDA.

CURWOOD: Let me go back to this meeting for a moment. In your report in the Washington Post – it ran on Sunday May 31st – you list a number of tactics that they are discussing, that they are particularly concerned about the views of young mothers and that at this meeting they talk about how their holy grail spokesperson would be pregnant young mother who’d be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of Bisphenol-A. And you say that this is in the notes that you got.

While many efforts to ban uses of BPA have focused on baby bottles and other infant paraphenalia, a bill in the House would also keep it out of the inner lining of soda and food cans.

LAYTON: That’s right. They were talking about a response to all these various measures that are pending in state capitols around the country and on Capitol Hill and how they could try to get their message out. They also aired some frustration with the mainstream media, talking about how the mainstream media wasn’t listening to their side of the story, and how it would be great it they could present a young, pregnant woman who could be the spokesperson for the benefits of BPA.

CURWOOD: We had a chat with John Rost. He’s the chair of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the group that organized this meeting. He says your portrayal of what went down at that meeting is unfair and it’s based on a fraudulent document. How do you respond to that?

LAYTON: Well when I obtained the document, I contacted a woman named Kathleen Roberts. She is the executive director of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance. She’s also a lobbyist. And I emailed her the document that I had and I asked her to read it, and confirm its accuracy. And she did. She said that it wasn’t complete, that there were other issues that were addressed at the meeting, but the notes that I sent her she said were a reflection, an accurate reflection of some of the discussion that took place. And now John Rost is backpedaling and saying that these notes were fraudulent, they don’t know where they came from. And I can tell you that shortly after that the House Committee on Commerce and Energy, which is led by Henry Waxman sent a letter to John Rost asking him to turn over all documents, emails pertaining to this meeting. This committee has been looking into BPA and the way federal agencies have been regulating that chemical. And of course this is a committee with subpoena power. So it will be interesting to see what in fact the industry group does in response to that request.

CURWOOD: Lyndsey Layton is a staff writer for the Washington Post. Thank you so much Ms. Layton.

LAYTON: Well thanks so much for having me. It was fun to talk with you.



Click here to read Lindsey Layton’s story in the Washington Post.

For more on links between BPA and cardiovascular disease, click here.

For more on BPA in canned goods and human health, click here.

Click here for the North American Metal Packaging Alliance’s views on bisphenol-A.

For more on one of the more recent studies on BPA, finding it leaches from plastic bottles into humans, click here.

Check out Living on Earth’s previous coverage of bisphenol-A here…

… and here…

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