Not long ago, US headlines were inundated with horror stories about the dangers of biphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to manufacture polycarbonate bottles. The articles invoked the words that would bring any American family to arms: “It could harm your children,” they read. BPA was effectively demonized. But what sources did the media use to justify the hype? Might BPA be no more a demon than a fluffy bunny?
As the saying goes, don’t believe everything you see on TV. At least, that is what is suggested by the non-profit, non-partisan investigation from STATS, Science Suppressed: How America became obsessed with BPA.
Dating back to the 1930′s, thousands of studies have heralded the safety of BPA. However, as the STATS investigation reports, the few recent dissenting studies regarding BPA failed to use sound scientific practice. Even the most prominent of them, headed by Frederick vom Saal, were rejected by foreign bodies, such as the European Union and the World Health Organization, as inherently flawed in their methods and conclusions.
However, despite their lack of recognition, those same studies were touted as evidence by the media. One newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “explicitly warned by the head of the National Toxicology Program expert panel that it was relying too much on one scientist whose work and perspective had been repeatedly rejected by international risk assessments.”
Not only did small sample sizes taint the validity of the studies, but flawed methods in the administration of doses of BPA to study subjects (usually rats) further convoluted the results. In humans, 99% of BPA exposure occurs via ingestion. However, the studies that concluding BPA was harmful used primarily a subcutaneous (under the skin) injection to administer BPA. Why does this matter? Because BPA follows differing physiological pathways depending on the route of exposure:
When BPA is ingested, it is rapidly detoxified, first in the gastrointestinal tract (GI) and then in the liver by enzymes which add a sugar molecule to BPA, transforming it into a water soluble BPA-glucuronide. The sugar conjugate is easily and quickly excreted in urine. The half life of BPA-glucuronide is six hours. There is a minor metabolic pathway in which some BPA is converted to a sulfate, but this is also water soluble and quickly excreted from the body (Tsukioka et al.,2004; Völkel et al., 2002, 2005).
In both of these pathways, BPA is deactivated, meaning it loses its capacity to act like an estrogen (Matthews et al., 2001; Shimizu et al., 2002; Snyder et al., 2000). This is important to note as BPA is considered to have a weak estrogenic capacity (approximately 15,000 times weaker than the strongest naturally-occurring estrogen in humans) – one of the reasons it has been dubbed an “endocrine disruptor” by environmental activists. The way orally ingested BPA is metabolized removes that capacity.
When a rat or mouse is injected with BPA as opposed to being fed BPA different things happen. The chemical retains its estrogenic capacity as it circulates in the blood and enters cells.
Furthermore, the actual amount of BPA ingested by humans on a daily basis is 500,000 times lower than that needed to elicit adverse effects in rats: “We get vastly more estrogenic chemicals from eating nuts, cereals and bread,” says the report.
There is much more to the STATS report, but whether one is convinced of the safety of BPA or not is beside the point. The underlying point is that media outlets, as businesses, have the ultimate interest financially in selling more issues/gaining viewers. The best way to do so? Publish the most attention grabbing and emotionally driven stories possible (example: the initial hype about the killer swine flu). What’s the point in reacting to something based on anecdote or flawed data? As consumers of news media, it is important to stay skeptical.