Is BPA Really Safe?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

As one who remembers the Alar scare of the late 1980s, I am hardly surprised that for all the government- and media-fanned panic about it, Bisphenol-A (BPA) is actually safe. Nancy McDermott of Sp!ked reports:

The Canadian ban and the subsequent panic has an almost Orwellian feel for anyone who actually follows scientific discussions of BPA. To appreciate fully the gulf between the public perception of risk and the reality, it is worth knowing something about the discussion of BPA among scientists. Scientists have been studying the chemical intensively for the better part of a decade since it was first suggested it might pose a risk to human health by Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri at Columbia. More than 4,000 studies and several major risk assessments later, scientists in the US, Japan and the European Union have exonerated it.
That sounds like old hat. McDermott also makes some interesting observations about why scientific evidence is getting short shrift in this latest panic:
It is of course very tempting to put these distortions down to journalists' predisposition for sensation, or perhaps to an environmentalist bias among some parents - but the story's grip on the public imagination suggests that there's more going on here. It is not that the facts are unavailable or that parents and journalists are incapable of grasping them. It’s more that it never occurs to them to be critical. They are blinkered by a mistrust of the fruits of modernity and by deep pessimism about the future. [bold added]
McDermott is on to something here, but she's not being hard enough on journalists -- or others on the continuum of intellectual occupations. Consider the following from some past commentary about environmentalist "safety" scares by Alex Epstein of the Ayn Rand Institute:
Environmentalists got the pesticide DDT and the apple preservative Alar off the market with claims that each causes cancer--based on studies using mice fed the equivalent of over 100,000 times normal human consumption. To "prove" that fossil fuels cause cataclysmic climate change--first, global cooling in the 1970s, now, global warming--environmentalists cite the predictions of wildly inaccurate computer models that, according to climatologist Dr. Patrick Michaels, perform "worse than a table of random numbers when applied to U.S. temperatures."

The environmentalists' proclamations of danger and doom are not honest errors based on an overzealous concern for human safety and well-being--they are a dishonest scare-tactic to make their anti-industrial policies appealing to those who do not share the environmentalist belief that nature should be preserved at human expense. [bold added]
The "blinders" of which Ms. McDermott speaks are both the unfortunate long-term result of several generations of "progressive" education mixed with propaganda and the shorter-term effect of the overwhelming overexposure such environmentalist scares get in a news media dominated by altruist-collectivists -- who know, by the way, that the best way to stir panic is to imply that infants and children may be in danger.

In the long-term, we see the epistemology of the general public becoming less rational, and in the short-term we see that this is opening the public up to the active evil of environmentalists.

-- CAV


Monica said...

In the original article, the author states: "Most problematically, some now call for ‘independent science’, untainted by any ties to industry. The term is deceptive. Science is science. The notion of ‘independent science’ trivialises the whole notion of objectivity..."

Wow. I hope Nancy McDermott will be happy to put her money where her mouth is and take those prescribed statins later in life to lower that pesky blood cholesterol that the "objective scientists" tell her causes heart disease!

Unfortunately, her article sounds a bit more like a defense of the status quo than the actual thinking she accuses others of not doing. I certainly don't support this ban but I do question the author's objectivity. In another Spiked article about endocrine disruptors (here: the author says:

"Yet one thing we do know categorically is that far more of these chemicals occur naturally in the food that we eat than they do in any artificial compound."

True enough. Yet does the author go on to tell us about estrogenic chemicals in foods and the dangers they might pose? Nope. Presumably that's because he doesn't believe in the precautionary principle (in fact, he wrote a book stating as much). Mary Enig, fat biochemist, disagrees:

Gus Van Horn said...

"[McDermott's] article sounds a bit more like a defense of the status quo than the actual thinking she accuses others of not doing."

Thanks for bringing that issue up. I'd missed that.

Industry-funded science can be objective, just as government-funded science can be agenda-driven, but as your statin example brings up, one cannot just take a given scientist at his word. One must integrate what he says with the totality of his other knowledge.

Monica said...

Precisely. After all, most scientists believe in global warming! To be truly objective, we need to look at both the agenda and the supposed facts. Plenty of scientists have cooked the data and published it in peer-reviewed journals -- even in totally non-controversial fields having nothing to do with a particular ideology.

Jim May said...

Plenty of scientists have cooked the data and published it in peer-reviewed journals -- even in totally non-controversial fields having nothing to do with a particular ideology.

Look for this fact to eventually get detonated in the public space by the religionists (like Dinesh D'Souza) when the ultimate end of all this scaremongering comes to fruition as a generalized attack on all science as untrustworthy/dangerous, the product of "flawed human beings", a Pandora's Box we never should have opened.

I just hope I'm no longer around should it get all the way to the survivors saying Greetings, good simpleton! to each other...

Gus Van Horn said...

Hah! Someone from college lent me that book nearly twenty years ago and I never read it, although I am pretty sure I still have it somewhere.

You may have just spared it from being winnowed down before my move to Boston!

Monica said...

"Look for this fact to eventually get detonated in the public space by the religionists..."

Oh, that's already been happening for quite some time -- long before it came on the radar screen of the popular media. Religionists have long been aware of the ammunition that can be gleaned from books like Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (which has a few minor valuable points but overall sends a terrible message, I think). Ideas pulled from such books were abundant in my own Christian college science education, in which there was a weird mix of environmentalism and creationism and a generally skepticism of science (yes, in science education!!). The bright spot is that all this skepticism leads the truly intellectually honest to doubt skepticism, too.

Nevertheless, we can't self-censor on this point (short term problems in the scientific community) in the hopes of achieving a long-term goal. Pointing out the lack of objectivity in all levels of our culture -- including the scientific community -- is something that has to be done if we're going to achieve objectivity as a standard -- i.e. Objectivism. People who are not intellectually honest are going to believe what they want to believe, anyway. But they are not our concern. Perhaps I am sounding too pollyannish, but since I personally do not feel compelled to jump off into the religious or socialist mystical bandwagon despite being steeped in both for years, I see no reason that the general American public (that IS intellectually honest) would want to, either. The problem is, they have simply not been giving the right intellectual tools to defend themselves. That's where Objectivism is coming in.

Gus Van Horn said...

These are both excellent points, and they are related explicitly as follows:

If we Objectivists are not particularly vigilant about making sure we don't inadvertently lend credibility to those who would destroy reason, these tools will make the religionists and subjectivists much more able to wreak havoc than they could on their own.

The last thing we want to do is make it seem to the intellectually honest that there isn't a viable alternative to either.

Mike said...

The tricky thing about the BPA scare is where it is directed. Parents of infants (myself included) are generally inclined toward a take-no-chances attitude. We essentially depend completely on the good faith and correct conclusions of the scientific and medical communities. If they are wrong, we spent a bunch of money for nothing. If they are right, we saved some babies. The problem comes when someone realizes how benign that outcome matrix is, and how much room that gives them to advance a political or social agenda. They know the people on the consumer end of this equation are not going to be checking the data.

Gus Van Horn said...

This -- and some of the issues Monica brings up at her blog -- is precisely why it is so much easier to sow panic with parents. Much rides on an issue on which they haven't expertise.

Monica said...

Well, if parents are truly concerned but don't have time to investigate, they could go out and buy some glass bottles instead of some plastic ones... unless there's a sudden surge in demand and producers can't keep up, that's not a lot of money. No one is telling people they have to buy hybrid cars here :) Neverthless, I think the ban in Canada and the PROPOSED ban in the United States is utter nonsense. I mean, if these people are truly worried about estrogen mimickers, they need to stop giving their infants soy formula that has tens of thousands of times more estrogen. ALL of this stuff is avoidable if people want to educate themselves. It is in a plastic bottle, not in the air and water where you have no choice but to ingest or breathe it in. Sure, parents are not experts but they could take a half hour to do a google search when they hear about BPA and try to find something that looks authoritative. (Mike, I'm sure you would fit into this category.) But most people don't. Instead, the presence of the FDA or some "expert" lulls people into a sense of complacency about their purchases and makes dummies out of the average American. Of course, it only works if the supposed threat is small, generally avoidable, and an easy target -- like a particular toy from China. This happens with so many health "threats" -- awhile back I blogged about some crazy community college "professor" that looked at bacteria on raw lemons and got all of America's panties into knots over the fact that the lemon in their restaurant drink might kill them with some dread disease. I got several emails from people vowing they would never again get lemons in their water when going out to eat. However, if someone is silly enough to bend their entire life around lemons, voluntarily, it's no skin off my back. I agree with you, though, Gus -- there is the broader, worrying trend that the American public can be very irrational about things that, if they looked at them in context, matter little. Heck, I'm sure a great many people believe that if you eat one egg each day you'll die of a heart attack. Please. And don't even get me started on those supposed carcinogens in your grilled meat. :)

Gus Van Horn said...

"And don't even get me started on those supposed carcinogens in your grilled meat."

Heh! I've heard so much contradictory dietary and health advice over the years that I usually tune it out.

In fact, I will often quip about the "tasty carcinogens" when eating grilled meat, and speak of getting my "daily mercury allowance" when eating fish.

(Not to discount mercury, which can be a big problem....)

The point is, most of these things are low level risks (if that) that adults should be able to decide for themselves whether to take.