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BPA, FDA, NPR and More BS: Plastic, Autism, and Breast-Feeding Too

Posted Jan 21 2010 10:59am

Two environmentalists performed "self-experiments" by eating canned food and rubbing Scotch Guard on themselves then wrote a book and called it scientific evidence of harmful toxins.  Voila, national media attention, instant expert status.  And somehow, by pure chance or a well-orchestrated PR campaign, the book bad-mouthing BPA and other household toxins came out just before the FDA announced its long-awaited opinion on bisphenol-a, aka BPA. 

Ah, the FDA...who's made a reversal, huge shift, issued a warning, or simply expressed some concern.  Depending on the source, the new FDA opinion is either a big deal or really, not much of a change at all. Let's sample the headlines about the new FDA statement:
FDA Backtracks on Potential Danger of BPA (ABCNews.com, January 16th)

FDA Issues Warning About BPA Exposure (CBS Early Show, January 18th)
Sounds like the FDA really hammered away at the safety of BPA.  And yes, there were less dramatic ones...
FDA on BPA: 'Some Concern,' No Ban (WebMD, January 15th)

F.D.A. Concerned About Substance in Food Packaging (New York Times, January 15th)
FDA Says Bisphenol A (BPA) Exposure Is of 'Some Concern' for Infants and Children (ScienceDaily, January 20th)
You'll note the more moderate tones in the latter headlines.  But I must take my mostly beloved ScienceDaily to task on this one.  The clearinghouse of scientific research went to Dr. Frederick vom Saal, the self-annointed BPA "expert" who many mainstream scientist perceive as promoting questionable science.  Vom Saal also helped a CBS journalist/tv personality conduct her own self-experimentation with BPA-laced cans of tuna too.  Anyhow, here's how the media-friendly "expert" described the new FDA stance at SD:

The FDA formally acknowledging concern about BPA and working with NIH to incorporate research from outside of the chemical industry is a huge step forward.

Huge step? 

Remember, the FDA didn't deem it dangerous enough to actually ban it.  But as for ScienceDaily, well, could you not seek out an objective authority?  This doesn't bode well for those of us who appreciate a more scientific take on scientic discoveries.  I've noticed a slow creeping toward the dramatic on SD, a few more pop references than I'd otherwise expect.  Someone there's been watching too much Gossip Girl.

And I'm sorry to have to scold that other well-regarded go-to source of nuance and objectivity.  National Public Radio.  As much as I adore and listen to NPR, been a member for over a decade, their programming entertains a few less than sound scientific voices.  The most recent being  the "Slow Death by Rubber Duck" authors talking with host Diane Rehm yesterday.  Here's the show description on the website for The Diane Rehm Show:
The FDA issues a warning about a chemical often found in baby bottles and food containers. Two Canadian environmentalists describe what their own experiments reveal about BPA and other chemicals used in everyday foods and products.

Note the "warning".  Note the scientific-sounding claim.  As expected, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, the authors,  spoke about BPA and other chemicals "causing" all manner of health issues as if their experiments, and all the other correlational findings out there, are de facto evidence.  It was almost more than I could bear waiting in the school car line.

Pushing the show into the realm of pure speculation and honestly, something I half-feared, a mother called in and asked the two now "experts" if there were any evidence that these household chemicals, including BPA, caused autism.

OF COURSE.  Smith or Lorrie, don't know which one, announced there was indeed evidence that these caused autism in addition to  ADHD, heart disease, obesity, and a few others I missed because I was nearly ranting at my radio with my four-year old asking who I was talking to.  Are there some studies on the issue?  Yes, many, many.  Looking at prenatal environments of autistic children.  You name it.  But none has provided solid evidence of a link.  Some have had very indirect links. Could it be true?  Obviously it could.  But we just don't have this evidence to date. 

Look, I threw out all the bottles and plastics with BPA.   I'm no huge fan of the Chemical Industry.   BPA may turn out to be a problem for developing minds and bodies.  But we just don't have enough evidence to conclude so.  Maybe a few years from now.  Then again, maybe it will be exonerated.  If we could not jump to conclusions I would appreciate it.  Why not just ban it and assume it's terribly toxic?  From a psychological perspective, I think all the anxiety and fear-mongering is not healthy or useful.  And in some cases, counter-productive and leaks to other areas and substances.  

Just when you think the scolding is over...

So the New York Times reported in a front-page article the FDA played the breast-feeding card  (U.S. Concerned about the Risks From A Plastic, January 16th, title changed in on-line version).  Yes, I sought out my paper in the recycling pile to make sure.  I remembered reading.  There it was: 

The drug agency also recommended that mothers breastfeed their infants for at least 12 months; liquid formula contains traces of BPA.
But when I went to the FDA I couldn't find any breast-feeding endorsement.  In fact, they think families should go on using canned formula.
At this time, FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods, as the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk of BPA exposure.
Ah, lordy.  Thank goodness the FDA is not now also exaggerating the benefits of breast-feeding.  But somehow I don't think that would land them in much trouble with the public.  Did someone at the FDA say this in an interview with a reporter?  Maybe our friend The Fearless Formula Feeder knows the answer? 

So, there you have it.  Although there's no solid or conclusive scientific evidence linking BPA to autism and breast-feeding, or rather, infant formula - what we do have here is evidence of links in the media between BPA and those two other push-button issues that often eluded nuanced public discourse - breast-feeding and autism.

And no, I've not yet read "Slow Death By Rubber Duck."  Nor do I expect a complimentary copy to arrrive on my door step.
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