What Happens When Science Proves NGOs Wrong?

Over the last eight years the once-sporadic rhetoric attacking bisphenol A (BPA) has become a steady drum beat. These days studies seem to come out almost weekly purporting to “link” BPA to this disease or “associate” it with that health concern.

This relentless inquisition has had its effect on the marketplace.  You cannot get many products in polycarbonate plastics anymore, and the moniker “BPA-Free” seems plastered on every sports bottle or plastic container in stores today. In fact the marketing of “BPA-Free” products is just that, a marketing ploy.

But here’s an important question: What if the organizations that have spent the last eight years, and thousands of dollars, attacking BPA and pushing for BPA-free products were to find out that the science behind their campaign simply does not support their claims?

Apparently, as it turns out, they’d just go on attacking, or turn their attacks on the scientists — even while advocating for similar science in other campaigns. Here’s what I mean.

Just five years ago, there were conflicting scientific reports on the safety of BPA. The best (meaning most scientifically rigorous) studies on BPA’s human health effects were conducted and paid for by industry. Those studies could be quickly dismissed as self-serving science by the anti-BPA organizations and essentially ignored by their membership. Instead, the organizations focused on another set of studies, in particular those funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which provided over $180 million in BPA research grants. While most of these research studies had little to do with the way humans are exposed to BPA, the findings made great headlines for the anti-BPA crusades.

Fast forward to 2015: The science landscape has changed dramatically.  The best studies on BPA safety don’t come from industry, but from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These studies conclusively demonstrate that humans quickly metabolize and excrete BPA, proving that it is not a health concern. Top that off with comprehensive reviews of all the science on BPA, conducted by both FDA and its European equivalent, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), that both clearly affirm the safety of current uses of BPA. 

This leads to a tricky question: can an activist group ever say it was wrong, and if it does, will it continue to exist? Groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) have invested heavily in anti-BPA campaigns. Following the recent scientific reviews by FDA and EFSA, these groups have had to go into attack mode against those organizations and their staff. Without offering actual proof, they have suggested that FDA takes kickbacks from industry that affect its positions on safety and therefore its scientific positions on the issue cannot be trusted. These suggestions are insulting, demoralizing and bordering on slanderous to the educated scientific staffs at FDA and EFSA, people who have dedicated their careers to protecting and improving our quality of life.

Ironically, these activist groups have started a new campaign, attacking the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) program, which allows companies to make scientific decisions on certain food additives without FDA’s consent. In this campaign, the NGO’s are saying only FDA is scientifically qualified and unbiased enough to make these decisions. In other words, only the FDA’s stamp of approval should be allowed ensure the safety of what we’re eating — in the case of food additives.

If these groups truly believe that FDA is the right body to make scientific decisions on food safety — as they state in their GRAS campaigns — then shouldn’t they also embrace the FDA position on BPA, which is shared by scientific bodies like EFSA, Health Canada, German Society of Toxicology, Food Standards of Australia/New Zealand?

But the reality is they cannot. Because to do so would jeopardize years of anti-BPA work — and the funding it attracts.

The hypocrisy of these activist groups brings to mind a Carl Sagan quote:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. 

We should not and cannot accept the bamboozle. These activist groups should be held accountable for their conflicting positions on FDA and BPA safety.

Dr. John M. Rost is the Chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance. He received his Ph.D in Chemistry from Loyola University in Chicago.