The Environmental Protection Agency has released a plan of action to investigate bisphenol-A, or BPA, and added the compound as a chemical of concern because of its possible harmful effects on the environment.
BPA, a plastic commonly used in food packaging and plastic bottles, has long been questioned for its purported cancer link in animals, but scientific research has yet to confirm hazardous health implications in humans. The agency said this week they will begin measuring levels of BPA in surface, drinking, and ground water.
The action follows a Food and Drug Administration decision to launch its own investigation after releasing a statement in January expressing concern about the health risks of BPA.
"We share FDA's concern about the potential health impacts from BPA," said Steve Owens, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, in a statement released by the EPA .
More than 1 million pounds of BPA are released into the environment each year, according to the agency. The EPA will require BPA manufacturers to provide data to the agency to help evaluate its possible impact, including long-term effects on growth, reproduction, and development in animals in the surrounding area.
However, while the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that represents many BPA manufacturers, welcomed the EPA's plan, the group said that the plan should not be mistaken for regulatory action against BPA.
"BPA has not been proven to cause harm to infants or adults, and other regulatory bodies around the world have determined that the science supports the safety of BPA," said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, in a written statement.
"Both EPA and FDA, and many other agencies are moving forward to fully assess the environmental and health impacts to ensure that the full range of BPA's possible impacts are examined," said Owens.
BPA: How Much Is Too Much?
The EPA's plan may put the U.S. on track to follow suit of other countries, including Canada, that have already banned the sale and importation of many products that contain BPA.
In March 2009, six major baby product manufacturers agreed to eliminate BPA from their U.S. baby bottle products. And states, including Connecticut and Minnesota, have individually banned BPA from baby products, such as baby food and beverage containers. However, many researchers are conflicted about whether there is enough scientific evidence to brand BPA as a dangerous compound.
While there are limited studies providing a strong case that ties BPA levels to adverse health effects in humans, studies in animals have found a link between increased levels of BPA and diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Based on its chemical structure, BPA can also act as an endocrine disruptor, which can interfere with normal hormones in the body. However, many studies offer conflicting evidence on the degree to which BPA disrupts human hormones and whether these disruptions are harmful.
A 2009 study conducted in China found that male workers in a BPA facility reported lower sexual function. However, the levels of BPA found in the bodies of the affected men were 50 times the level found in average Americans.
According to Kathy Gerwig, vice president of environmental stewardship at Kaiser Permanente, the study is not a fair assessment of whether regular BPA exposure can be considered dangerous.
"We don't know what the health effects are of BPA at lower levels," said Gerwig.
Most chemicals pose harmful effects at very high exposure levels, said Dr. Robert Brent, professor of pediatrics, radiology and pathology at Thomas Jefferson University in Wilmington, Del.
"The threshold for developmental effects from BPA exposure is far above the levels to which the human populations are exposed," he said.
A 2008 report by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found detectable levels of BPA in 93 percent of urine samples from people 6 years and older. Concentrations of the compound were higher in children and teens than in adults, which raised concern about BPA's potential to interfere with normal human growth and development, according to the report.
According to Dr. David Egilman, associate professor of community health at Brown University in Providence, R.I., current evidence is enough to prompt government agencies to restrict the use of the compound in the U.S. Companies that are using BPA are "trespassing by putting chemicals in people," he said.
"I know it's not the end of civilization if we have to take this out of products," said Egilman.
The FDA has reportedly set aside $30 million to study BPA's safety over the next 18 to 24 months. The EPA has authority to restrict the use of chemicals that pose risks to the environment and public health.
Many experts have advised people not to heat plastic containers that contain BPA in the microwave or running the containers through the dishwasher. Containers made out of the plastic 'polycarbonate' may contain BPA, according to some, and unless polycarbonate products are marketed as BPA-free, they should be treated as if they contain the chemical.