As activists props go, apple-cheeked toddlers bearing signs that say “Don’t Pollute Me” are pretty hard to resist.
And so, the Canadian government last week officially declared the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) toxic, the latest milestone in a public-pressure process that began years ago, encompassing countless media reports and more than a few sign-wielding little scamps.
The activist groups have offered huzzahs in response, saluting Canada for leading the way in banning the chemical from products such as baby bottles, and demanding that our government take the next step — outlawing its use in everything from water-cooler bottles to tin cans.
But while Canada is leading the way, so far no one else seems inclined to follow. And it’s worth asking: Did Health Canada make this decision based on science, or because of public pressure? If it’s the latter, it sets a troubling precedent.
Our government is far from alone in having considered regulating against BPA. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), for one, examined the science surrounding the chemical in 2006, again in 2008 and just this month released the findings of another huge review.
The EFSA does not seem like a bunch of rubes in hock to industry, but here’s what it had to say on the matter. “Following a detailed and comprehensive review of recent scientific literature and studies on the toxicity of bisphenol A at low doses,” its scientists “could not identify any new evidence which would lead them to revise the current [standards.]”
So, does the European body play fast and loose with chemical regulation? After all, you can still smoke in public buildings in some places there. And go topless on beaches. It’s practically bohemia. No, it’s guided by the same precautionary principle that guides Canadian authorities. It just took a close look, it says, at more than 800 recent studies, and it reached some pretty simple conclusions.
The EFSA says it focused on studies with “quality criteria” in order to assess “the validity and/or applicability of the individual findings to human risk assessment.” Sounds reasonable. When it did so, it found that the relevant studies suggested current acceptable levels of BPA exposure are fine. Other studies, many of which have been touted as evidence of the chemical’s danger to humans, were dismissed as either scientifically flawed or not relevant to humans.
The science is complicated, but the essence is that many BPA studies used rats injected with the chemical to examine its effects. Humans, meanwhile, ingest it orally and excrete it faster than rodents, meaning exposure to it is far less risky for people than it is for rats.
Thus, when the EFSA looked at the various rat studies, or human surveys that suggested one ill effect or another from BPA, it “identified some limitations in these studies, which raise further questions as to the significance of the reported findings.” This is a polite way of saying they are a bit sketchy. “The Panel could not draw any relevant conclusion for risk assessment from these studies,” it said.
So what does Health Canada have to say about all this? In the formal declaration published last week, it noted that “risk assessments conducted by the European Union and national regulators including those of Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as an independent review by NSF International [a product-certification company] all have determined that the potential exposures to humans do not constitute a danger to human health.” Goodness, that’s quite a list. So what evidence is Canada relying on to take the opposite view?
“Health Canada considers that [its] in-depth assessment … resulted in robust and relevant scientific evidence.” That’s about it in terms of detail: We’re happy with our conclusions.
Health Canada also noted “that the risk assessments from some other jurisdictions were primarily based on the results of studies according to guidelines for good laboratory practices.” Well, sure they were. Isn’t that the idea of these reviews? Focus on the studies with “good” practices? “Health Canada considered these studies as well as studies not conducted according to these guidelines,” the declaration says. Hmm. That’s a bit odd. Why would Health Canada expand the net to include studies that did not have good practices? It might have to … if it was trying to find a way to justify the ban.
Recall that the Conservative government announced its intent to restrict BPA in 2008 by saying it would “Protect Families With Bisphenol A Regulations.” And here we are, two years later, sufficiently protected. It may not be what happened in this case, but it’s not hard to imagine that pressure from Cabinet could have trumped the science. Just ask the people from Statistics Canada.