AUGUSTA, Maine — The political debate over bisphenol A is heating up in Maine after Gov. Paul LePage’s recent comments questioning whether the controversial chemical is as dangerous as many scientists claim.
And LePage’s unusual quip about some women growing “little beards” from exposure to BPA likely will add another wrinkle to an issue on track to be one of the most contentious of the legislative session.
In his comments last week, LePage said he has yet to see enough science to support a ban on BPA, a common additive to plastics that some research suggests may interfere with hormone levels and could cause long-term problems. LePage said until scientists can prove BPA is harmful, the state should not rush to restrict its use.
“Quite frankly, the science that I’m looking at says there is no [problem],” LePage said. “There hasn’t been any science that identifies that there is a problem.”
LePage then added: “The only thing that I’ve heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards.”
That last comment prompted a strong reaction from Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a Maine-based advocacy group.
“It displays shocking ignorance for the science and a callous disregard for children’s health,” Belliveau said.
Other researchers bristled at the governor’s dismissal of what they insist are volumes of scientific studies indicating that BPA could pose serious risks to fetuses and developing children.
“BPA is one of the most well-studied chemicals, and it is just ludicrous to ignore the science,” said Susan Shaw, a toxicologist at the Marine Environmental Research Institute who has been studying the effects of toxics on humans and animals for more than three decades. “There is a large body of evidence about the hazards of BPA that is irrefutable.”
BPA is a common chemical additive used in some hardened plastics, such as reusable food and beverage containers, as well as in liners in tin cans and on some paper. An estimated 6 million pounds of BPA are produced annually, although rising public concern about the potential health effects have prompted some manufacturers to drop the chemical.
Recent research most often conducted on animals has linked BPA to a host of health issues including reproductive problems, learning disabilities, cancer and obesity. Critics of BPA contend the chemical poses the greatest risk to children.
In response, eight states, Canada and the European Union have restricted BPA in products. And late last year, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection recommended banning the sale of reusable food and beverage containers containing BPA beginning in 2012.
The verdict is still out on BPA from the perspective of most governmental agencies, however.
The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have said they have “some concern” about BPA’s effects on fetuses, children and infants at current exposure levels through food and the environment but that more research is needed.
The European Food Safety Authority, meanwhile, has deemed as safe the level of exposure to BPA encountered through food. And the World Health Organization has said enacting regulatory restrictions on the chemical would be premature at this point.
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the WHO and European Food Safety Authority positions point to the fact that there is no “consensus science” on the health impacts of BPA.
“Consumers can make their own choices,” Demeritt said. “But in terms of state policy, we have to have consensus.”
But several researchers questioned whether LePage is listening to scientists or the chemical manufacturing industry.
Frederick vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri’s Endocrine Disruptors Group and a prominent researcher of BPA, said there is “overwhelming scientific consensus that BPA is a health problem.” But the federal bureaucracy that is supposed to protect public health is so inadequate, vom Saal said, that states need to take the lead on restricting BPA’s use.
Comparing the debate over BPA to the fight over the health risks of tobacco, vom Saal said scientific studies funded by the chemical industry will of course insist on BPA’s safety because the product is a huge money maker.
“That is tobacco science,” vom Saal said. “If we were only looking at science conducted by the tobacco industry, would there be any reason to regulate tobacco?”
Steven Hentges, executive director of a polycarbonate-BPA group at the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, acknowledged there are conflicting studies regarding the health risks of BPA.
“But when that science has been comprehensively reviewed,” Hentges said, “the consensus is that BPA is not a risk to human health.”
Scott Belcher, a University of Cincinnati associate professor who has been studying the health effects of BPA for at least eight years, said the reality is there is no quick, easy answer to the question of BPA’s safety. And the same research study or position paper can be interpreted differently depending on the person’s agenda, making it even more difficult for the public, the media and even scientists to reach a conclusion.
For his part, Belcher said he personally tries to avoid exposure to BPA. But as for whether the chemical should be restricted, he leaves that up to policymakers.
“We can see effects of BPA,” Belcher said. “But how that is interpreted by people involved in risk assessment is beyond what we do.”
This story has been changed to correct the name of Susan Shaw’s organization to the Marine Environmental Research Institute.