In January, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, published a long awaited scientific opinion on the risks for humans posed by bisphenol A (BPA). The decision by EFSA’s scientists was the result of a extensive process heavily involving stakeholders’ input. However, those who hoped it would end one of the most controversial debates about a chemical in recent years should prepare for being disappointed.
BPA is a chemical that is mainly used in combination with other chemicals to produce plastics and resins. For example, BPA is used in food containers, bottles (including infant bottles), storage containers. It also appears in resins which are used to produce coatings in cans for food and beverage. Additionally, thermal paper which is often used for cash register receipts contains BPA.
In its scientific opinion, EFSA essentially did two things: First, it announced that “BPA poses no health risk to consumers of any age group (including unborn children, infants and adolescents) at current exposure levels”. Secondly, it reduced the recommendation for the tolerable daily intake threshold value considerably from 50 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight to 4 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight. EFSA added that the actual exposure estimation is still much lower than the newly suggested threshold value. For exposure hundreds of times above the TDI, however, BPA is likely to have negative health effects on kidney and liver, according to EFSA.
Some interpreted the assessment to be an “all-clear signal for BPA”. However, others highlighted the reduced TDI and the still remaining uncertainties especially regarding potential effects on the reproductive system and BPA’s alleged carcinogenic effects. EFSA does not consider such issues likely at present “but they could not be excluded”. These perspectives essentially represent the two sides of the long lasting debate and EFSA’s assessment is not likely to have put an end to it:
- In its statement from January, EFSA described its assessment as temporary. A long term study is currently running. The results could change EFSA’s assessment. Thus after the assessment is before the assessment.
- As a matter of fact, disturbing studies keep appearing, which find their way in the political debate about BPA. As hypothetical they may be with regard to the effective exposure for humans, they do keep stirring up the debate. For example scientists from Harvard University found that some food packaging contains 1.000 times higher levels of Bisphenol A than fresh food. Such studies keep the political discussion going, for instance by inducing written questions to the EU commission by EU parliaments.
Furthermore, one might ask what effect EFSA’s latest assessment have for food safety regulations. A closer look shows that it rather will be limited, if relevant at all.
To start with, EFSA cannot issue binding regulation but merely recommendations. In fact, despite the repeated positive assessment by EFSA (and others), many countries have already banned BPA, especially for the use in baby bottles. In January 2011, the European Commission adopted Directive 2011/8/EU, which prohibits BPA in feeding bottles for babies. Likewise, BPA hit the headlines two years ago in the USA where the FDA consequently issued a ban on its use in baby bottles and cups for small children. Before that, Canada declared BPA a toxic in 2010 and banned it from children’s products. Most notably, since 1st January 2015, in France BPA is prohibited for use in all food contact materials as per the law 2010-729. All these regulations are very unlikely to be changed in the light of the green light given by EFSA’s recent assessment. What becomes apparent is that BPA regulation is only partly driven by scientific assessments, but by political considerations which take into account public anxiety.
What is more, public regulation might not be the most important thing to look at – especially where BPA is a food safety issue. In many cases, companies have pre-emptively responded to the sustained public anxiety by banning BPA from their products, most notably from infant products. Another example is the company Greiner, which in 2013 announced to ban BPA from water bottles it produces.
EFSA’s announcement was not the last word in a debate. Given the political character and the public anxiety plus the remaining scientific uncertainty, EFSA’s decision might at most be one of many arguments making up future regulation on BPA – if at all.