Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Plastic Monster

The Journal of the American Medical Association, a conservative, scientifically rigorous publication for medical professionals, has scraped the scab off the dirty little secret several administrations of US government and those of many other countries have known about but kept hidden for decades: plastic kills.

They pulled it off with hair and skin and all, and left the area bleeding.

Following publication of the first major epidemiologic study of Bisphenol A, by Lang, Galloway and Scarlett, et al., in their September 17 issue, JAMA devoted the lead editorial to Bisphenol A and Risk of Metabolic Disorders by Drs. Frederick S. vom Saal and John Peterson Myers.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is the base chemical (monomer) used to make polycarbonate plastic food and beverage containers (water bottles, Nalgene®, SaranWrap®, the resin lining of cans, baby bottles, Huggies®, and dental sealants. Its in the 60,000 plastic bags used in the USA every 5 seconds. You absorb a small amount through your tissues whenever you handle the "carbonless" paper used for receipts you get at the grocery or hardware store. Its even in copier toner.

We have known for some years that BPA had some particularly nasty effects on animals. The human study by Lang, et al, reported a significant relationship between urine concentrations of BPA and cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver-enzyme abnormalities in the US population. They said BPA causes adverse effects on the brain, reproductive system and metabolic processes, including alterations in insulin homeostasis and liver enzymes, and cardiovascular function.

Canada has already taken steps to declare BPA a threat to health and is now employing aggressive action to enact a ban and limit human and environmental exposures. Landfills are seen as one of the more worrisome pathways. BPA production worldwide has now reached 7 billion pounds per year and much of that is non-degradable and eventually washes into aquatic ecosystems. If you haven’t watched Our Synthetic Sea, you need to.

So far, the US-FDA and the European Food Safety Authority have chosen to ignore the warnings. The JAMA editorial takes this stonewalling head-on: “One factor that may be contributing to the refusal of regulatory agencies to take action on BPA in the face of overwhelming evidence of harm … is an aggressive disinformation campaign using techniques ("manufactured doubt") first developed by the lead, vinyl, and tobacco industries to challenge the reliability of findings published by independent scientists.”

How does the FDA get away with ongoing fraud, JAMA asks, and then answers. “More recent findings from independent scientists were rejected by the FDA, apparently because those investigators did not follow the outdated testing guidelines for environmental chemicals, whereas studies using the outdated, insensitive assays (predominantly involving studies funded by the chemical industry) are given more weight in arriving at the conclusion that BPA is not harmful at current exposure levels.”

Perhaps the scariest part is what lies over the horizon. The JAMA editorial points to studies showing that infants, children, and adolescents, as well as pregnant women and fetuses are the most at-risk. They suggest the possibility of a connection between BPA in food and the dramatic increase in the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes in children. “A causal role for BPA in these trends is plausible because BPA can alter the programming of genes during critical periods in cell differentiation during fetal and neonatal development. This process, referred to as ‘epigenetic programming,’ can result in the expression of metabolic disease and cancers during later life,” they warn.

While the US government drags its heels at the behest of the chemical companies, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Melbourne and other cities have banned plastic shopping bags. Last July China initiated a policy to charge for plastic bags in stores, and to require that purchase of the bags be shown clearly in all supermarket receipts (which you should be careful not to handle without cotton gloves). In order to reduce their garbage crisis, China banned ultra-thin plastic bags from being produced at all.

So, going forward into the chaos and collapse of our consumer culture, and a time when putting up produce from home gardens will once again be normal, it bears underscoring a point made in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide: “There is no stored food that is worth enough to risk chemical contamination by non-food chemicals and their potential hazard to human health.” Store food in metal or glass. Keep your leftovers in glass, wood, or ceramic containers. Don’t use old yogurt or butter tubs, or Tupperware®. Don’t cook in plastic. Don’t eat off plastic. Don’t drink from plastic.

And especially, don’t force your kids to, either.

For more, see Elizabeth Kolbert's interview with this leading endocrinologist.
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