“An Overview of the BPA Controversy”

“An Overview of the BPA Controversy”

by Joe Doss, President and CEO, International Bottled Water Association

In the past few years, there has been a great deal of controversy and scrutiny concerning Bisphenol-A (BPA), a component of polycarbonate plastic. Some scientists, legislators and environmentalists have voiced various and often conflicting opinions on BPA and its potential health effects.  However, the overwhelming majority of experts and regulatory agencies throughout the world believe that BPA is safe for use in consumer food products.

Regulatory agencies in several countries have ruled favorably on the safety of BPA, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, French Food Safety Authority, Health Canada (the FDA equivalent in Canada,) Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (NIAIST).

The consensus among these regulatory agencies is that the current levels of exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and children.  As noted by Health Canada, an adult would have to drink approximately 1,000 liters (or 264 gallons) of water from polycarbonate water cooler bottles every day to approach the science-based safe intake limit for BPA recently established in Canada.

Many bottled water companies use polycarbonate plastic for their 3 and 5 gallon water cooler bottles.  Polycarbonate plastic is also widely used in various food containers and many other everyday items, such as eyeglasses, paper store receipts, compact discs, cell phones, can liners; the list is almost endless for this popular material.

From November 1 – 5, 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO), in cooperation with Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and other international health agencies, held a stakeholder and expert panel meeting in Ottawa, Canada.   In a November 9, 2010, statement published on its website, WHO reported that the international expert panel reviewed all the latest scientific evidence on BPA and its potential to affect human health.  Importantly, because the panel could not determine the relevance of newer studies linking very low levels of BPA in the body with some adverse health effects, it stated, “Initiation of public health measures would be premature.”

Earlier, on September 30, 2010, EFSA re-confirmed the existing safe intake level for Bisphenol A.  EFSA stated: “Following a detailed and comprehensive review of recent scientific literature and studies on the toxicity of bisphenol A at low doses, scientists on EFSA’s (review) Panel conclude they could not identify any new evidence which would lead them to revise the current Tolerable Daily Intake for BPA of 0.05 mg/kg body weight set by EFSA in its 2006 opinion and re-confirmed in its 2008 opinion. The Panel also state that the data currently available do not provide convincing evidence of neuro-behavioural toxicity of BPA.”

On January 15, 2010, The FDA released “Update on Bisphenol A for Use in Food Contact Applications,” an updated statement regarding the agency’s position on the use and safety of BPA in food contact materials.  The FDA statement confirmed the overall safety of BPA used in food containers. FDA noted that “standardized toxicity tests have thus far supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA.” FDA did, however, state that based on studies “using novel approaches to test for subtle effects,” it has “some concerns” about the potential effects of BPA on infants and young children.   The FDA’s reference to “novel approaches” refers to the “low-dose theory,” which the World Health Organization and EFSA reviewed and found no evidence to support claims of adverse health effects.

FDA has not taken any formal action to prohibit the use of BPA in any food products.   In fact, FDA cautioned against making any changes in food packaging or consumption by either industry or consumers that could jeopardize food safety or reduce intake of food needed for good nutrition.  Bottled water companies using polycarbonate containers can therefore continue to sell their products fully confident of consumer safety.

The FDA’s position on the safety of BPA did not stop the U.S. Congress, 22 states and numerous localities from proposing over 80 separate pieces of legislation in 2010 to ban or severely limit the use of polycarbonate plastic with BPA in children’s products, food containers and other applications.  Minnesota was the first state in the U.S. to enact a restriction on the sale and distribution of certain products containing BPA. That happened in 2009, and since then seven other states have also enacted BPA restrictions – Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Vermont, Washington State and Wisconsin. In part because IBWA and our allies remain diligent in keeping lawmakers apprised of the solid science behind the safety of BPA, the majority of these new laws are more narrowly focused on products intended for young children (such as  baby bottles and sippy cups) and none of them currently apply to bottled water products.

IBWA has worked with broader industry coalitions managed by the likes of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to fight these misguided efforts to ban BPA.  In a few instances where proposed legislation was broader and appeared to capture our industry’s polycarbonate water bottles, IBWA members raised their voices and worked to have those proposals amended so that they did not directly impact the bottled water industry.  They contacted their legislators and attended a public hearing in order to voice their concerns about how a BPA restriction would negatively impact their business and thus the local economy.

IBWA members made certain that legislators understood that bottled water is a packaged food product highly regulated by the FDA and by the states in which they operate, and that the FDA continues to confirm the overall safety of BPA used in food containers. IBWA members also made certain that legislators knew that this was not just a “baby bottles and sippy cups issue”, and that polycarbonate water bottles could easily be considered a reusable food and beverage container under the wrong definition.  And IBWA members also made certain that legislators knew that replacing their existing polycarbonate water bottles would be very cost-prohibitive, and restricting their use would have negative economic consequences for local companies and the entire bottled water industry.

As we look ahead in 2011, concerns over BPA are not likely to go away.  The issue will continue to be very important for all IBWA members – small, medium and large. Inaccurate perceptions are likely to continue among legislators, and even some in the bottled water industry.  We should expect as much, if not more, related legislation in the coming year that could impact the bottled water industry – particularly in Illinois, New York, Maine, Oregon and Pennsylvania, as well as in Congress.

IBWA will continue to defend and provide the facts about the safety of BPA.   IBWA members and regional associations such as SEBWA must remain actively engaged and involved in providing accurate industry and BPA information to legislators in order to ensure that related legislation is not overtly and unintentionally broad to the point of unnecessarily harming our industry. If not, new BPA restrictions may directly impact the bottled water industry in negative ways.  If you want to get involved on this issue, please contact IBWA.