If it’s science vs. motherhood, can science ever win?

In a bit of unfinished business, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) added bisphenol A (BPA) to its Proposition 65 list of chemicals “known to the state to cause reproductive toxicity” last year.

Ben Miyares
Ben Miyares

It now proposes to amend the rule. (pwgo.to/2104)

I say “unfinished business” because listing of the chemical requires businesses that expose individuals to more than a California-determined level of the chemical (in their product or packaging) to warn of its presence. And California has not—nor does it plan to—establish a “safe harbor" level for BPA below which warnings would not be required.

On March 17th, OEHHA posted what it calls an “emergency regulatory proposal” meant to “avoid consumer confusion by promoting consistent warnings about BPA exposure from canned and bottled foods and beverages prior to exposure,” issuing a 46-page justification of its regulatory action. (pwgo.to/2120)

The proposed amendment calls for a “Maximum Allowable Dose Level (MADL) for bisphenol A (BPA) (dermal exposure from solid materials) of 3 micrograms per day…” Note: OEHHA generally establishes MADLs higher than their safe harbor levels under provisions of Prop 65.

Since OEHHA isn’t proposing a safe harbor level for BPA, processors and packagers whose products and packages contain any detectable amount of BPA must warn of its presence with labels or nearby signs starting on the 11th of next month. As OEHHA puts it: “If there is no safe harbor level, businesses that expose individuals to that chemical would be required to provide a Proposition 65 warning, unless the business can show that the anticipated exposure level will not pose a significant risk of cancer or reproductive harm.” (pwgo.to/2105)

“We do not plan to proceed with a BPA MADL at this time,” Sam Delson, deputy director for External and Legislative Affairs at OEHHA told me in an email last November. “We are aware that there is a significant amount of work being done at the Federal level on this chemical and we want to see how that unfolds over the next several months.”

Five months later, what’s unfolding at the Federal level is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—after reviewing hundreds of scientific tests—remains convinced that the tiny amount of BPA found in packages and products is safe. Presumably, processors and packagers could reference FDA’s stance to avoid having to issue warnings. (pwgo.to/2106) FDA’s position is consistent with most international health regulatory authorities including those in Canada, Japan, Europe and New Zealand.

So, incongruously, California references FDA’s position that BPA is safe to put it on its list of chemicals about which it has some safety concerns.

“BPA is a poster child for what happens when chemophobic ideologues and activists make the decision about risk levels in chemicals,” Dr. Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Food, Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, writes in Capitol Weekly, an independent publication covering California government and politics. “The act of selectively sifting through evidence to make a case against a chemical, while ignoring credible studies that point to safety, is irresponsible to human health,” Dr. Chassy continues. “The process results in a denial of scientific fact, the banning of safe products and a switch to new products that are less understood, and often, more threatening. In the end, this results in a misallocation of research, takes regulatory resources away [from] risks that pose real dangers to humans and the environment, and manipulates consumers into looking for risk in all the wrong places.” (pwgo.to/2107)

Still, the search for risk continues.

The most risk-adverse processors and packagers have already taken steps to distance their brands from consumers’ fears about BPA, opting for packaging that’s “BPA-free,” while cocking wary ears to the latest risk alarms about BPA and some of its alternatives.

Another current claxon of concern comes from the Netherlands. There, The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) is asking the EU to set more stringent standards for BPA exposure. “New animal studies,” report RIVM, “show that BPA can impair the immune system of unborn and young children at a lower exposure level than the one on which the current standards are based. This lower level is roughly comparable to the current every day BPA exposure level of workers and consumers. As a result of this exposure during pregnancy and at a young age, children could have a greater probability of developing food intolerances and could become more susceptible to infectious diseases.”

Pretty tenuous linkage, if you ask me.

But then, the Euros generally take a “guilty until proven innocent” posture on these matters. That plays well with consumers increasingly suspicious of anything Big Government and Big Business are up to. RIVM ratchets up the emotional appeal of its call to reduce BPA exposure by urging that “special attention should be given to protecting small children, pregnant women and women who breastfeed. This is because the developing unborn child, infants and young children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of BPA.”

I ask you: Can science ever win over the appeal of motherhood? Processors and packagers who are switching packaging formats and changing protective coating formulations know the answer to that question. (pwgo.to/2108)

Ben Miyares, Packaging Sherpa, is a packaging market and technology analyst and is president of The Packaging Management Institute, Inc. He can be reached at bmiyares@packmgmt.org.

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