BPA, otherwise known as bisphenol A, has a rap sheet as long as the Gambino family (despite the FDA's blessing), and the list of charges keeps growing. Used in making plastics--most notably water bottles and food containers, BPA mimics the effects of estrogen and has, in the past, been linked to breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, birth defects and heart disease, among other things. Although numerous experts and agencies -- including the National Toxicology Program, the Environmental Working Group, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences -- have determined that current safety standards for BPA are inadequate, the FDA consistently has turned a deaf ear. The agency cites several studies funded by the plastics industry to back up its position, ignoring the hundreds of other studies that point to the dangers of BPA.
And so, the stuff still resides in an astonishing array of commercial products, including plastic bottles, baby bottles, the lining of aluminum cans, food wraps, and so on. But now, a new study has come out that may finally get the guys at the FDA to stop filibustering. Though they've proven willing to ignore research that links BPA to brain damage in fetuses, the latest research hits closer to where it hurts. According to a study just published in the journal Human Reproduction, BPA, at least at high doses, causes erectile dysfunction and significant sexual problems in men.
The study, funded by the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, followed 634 men who worked in factories in China. Several of the factories manufactured BPA-based products, and the 230 subjects employed at these factories had very high levels of BPA exposure. In fact, their exposure averaged 50 times that of the average American man. The other 404 workers had no exposure to BPA on the job. Sure enough, the exposed workers had a four-hundred percent increase in erection difficulty, a four hundred percent decrease in sexual desire and sexual satisfaction, and a seven-hundred percent increase in ejaculation trouble. Plus, the higher the level of exposure, the more sexual problems the subjects suffered.
Admittedly, exposure at 50 times the normal level doesn't equate to the lower-level exposure most of us endure, although certainly the profound effects can't be ignored. On the other hand, this is the first study looking directly at the effects of BPA in humans. "We also need to study lower levels of exposure closer to those consumers get," says study director Dr. De-Kun Li of Kaiser Permanente. "But up until this point, the critics have dismissed the idea that BPA has health effects at any level because most of the research has been in animals. They can no longer do this."
Critics consistently have said that just because BPA causes damage to monkeys or mice in lab tests doesn't mean it will do the same thing to humans. In fact, so many previous animal studies have found frightening health effects from BPA even at very low levels that ignoring those results seems unthinkable, but that's exactly what the critics have done. Naturally, many of those critics, including those within the FDA, work for the plastics industry or have ties to it. Meanwhile, testing humans has been out of the question, because of the potential for harm (sweet irony, given the claims that BPA is harmless). So Dr. Li found subjects who already had high levels of BPA exposure, and sure enough, he found significant health consequences from that exposure. Unfortunately, his conviction that critics won't be able to dismiss "the idea that BPA has health effects at any level," though, already has proven wrong.
The FDA, for instance, still holds to its bottom-line statement that BPA is safe at average levels of exposure, and so the chemical persists. In fact, recent testing by Consumers Reports found traces of BPA in virtually every can of food they examined. According to Consumers Reports, "consumers eating just one serving of the canned vegetable soup we tested would get about double what the FDA now considers typical average dietary daily exposure."
And then there's the spokesman for the American Chemical Council, Dr. Steve Hentges, who apparently was unmoved by the possibility of erectile dysfunction as a BPA byproduct. Dr. Hentges says, "[This study provides] interesting information, but is of little relevance to the average consumer using products with trace levels of BPA. Based on the findings of the many government agencies that have examined the science, there is a consensus that BPA poses little risk to human health at these levels." Consensus? Dr. Hentges must define that word in a unique way, given the outcry calling for stricter BPA guidelines coming from so many quarters. Even the FDA's own Science Board issued a statement last year admitting that the FDA's stance might be a tad cavalier and that BPA safety should be reconsidered. If there is "consensus," it lies on the anti side of the BPA question. In fact, Minnesota, Chicago, and numerous other states and cities are moving toward banning the chemical. Six manufacturers have stopped using BPA in baby bottles in the past year alone. And retailers as profit-hungry as WalMart have made a decision to pull BPA-laden products from their shelves. Now, that's a consensus!
At this point, the pro BPA "consensus" Dr. Hentges refers to exists only among those with something to gain from continuing to produce BPA -- and that includes the chemical manufacturers, the plastics industry, the FDA, and perhaps now Pfizer, Inc., home of the erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra.