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FDA Defends Plastic Linked To Health Risks

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Food and Drug Administration has taken another step toward allowing continued use of a chemical. It's a chemical found in everything from baby bottles, to food containers, to sunglasses, to compact discs. It's called bisphenol A, or BPA. But a number of scientists say BPA is dangerous, and their side got a boost this week from a new study, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: At a public meeting yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration made its case to a panel of scientific advisers. Michelle Twaroski, a staff toxicologist at the FDA, presented a PowerPoint on how her team assessed the risks of BPA using the best available animal studies, and she summed up the agency's thinking.

Dr. MICHELLE TWAROSKI (Staff Toxicologist, Food and Drug Administration): In conclusion, FDA has considered the available data and determined that the margin of safety for bisphenol A exposure in all populations is adequate, and the continued use of bisphenol A in the manufacturer of food contact substance is concluded to be safe.

AUBREY: But during the next two hours of the hearing, the panel heard from members of the public and outside scientists who take issue with this conclusion. Diana Zuckerman heads an advocacy group called the National Research Center for Women and Families. She criticized the FDA for including so few studies in its assessment. She argued that relying on industry-funded animal studies is not a comprehensive approach.

Dr. DIANA ZUCKERMAN (President, National Research Center for Women and Families): Since these food containers are not proven safe, the FDA should not be assuring us that they are safe. It does feel like there's been a rush to judgment by the FDA, and that does none of us any good.

AUBREY: One the studies not included in the FDA review is published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It comes from researchers in Great Britain. They studied about 1,400 adults, the largest human study to date of BPA. And they found that people who had the highest levels of BPA in their urine were more than twice as likely to have developed diabetes and heart disease. This is compared to those who had the lowest levels of BPA in their urine. The study finds an association between these diseases and BPA, but it does not prove a cause and effect. Environmentalist John Peterson Myers wrote an editorial on the study that was also published in the medical journal. He spoke at the hearing yesterday.

Dr. JOHN PETERSON MYERS (Founder, CEO, Chief Scientist, Environmental Health Sciences): It is very clear that the FDA cannot conclude with certainty that BPA is safe. That option is no longer open to you given these new data.

AUBREY: Concerns about BPA have grown in recent years largely on the basis of animal studies. Some have shown that the chemical, even at low doses, can harm fetuses and offspring of mice and rats. Other studies, including some financed by the chemical industry, find no cause for alarm. Steven Hentges heads the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemistry Council. He says he trusts the FDA's assessment.

Dr. STEVEN HENTGES (Executive Director, Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group, American Chemistry Council): We actually think the FDA draft report is quite comprehensive, it's quite thorough. It included assessments from international bodies who have reviewed the scientific literature comprehensively.

AUBREY: The panel of FDA advisers now has six weeks to review the agency's assessment and weigh in on whether they agree that the continued use of BPA in food containers is safe. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.