Julian Charles: It is my great pleasure to be speaking to Dr. Frederick vom Saal. Dr. vom Saal is Curators' Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia, specialising in sexual differentiation, maternal foetal physiology, hormones and behaviour, and a member of the Endocrine Destructors Research Group in the University. Although his impressively long list of peer-reviewed publications stretches back almost forty years, he is best known - certainly outside academia - for his openly-expressed health concerns about the chemical Bisphenol A, or BPA, which is to be found in many of the plastics that we use on an every-day basis. I is to discuss that subject that he kindly joins us today. Dr vom Saal, thank you very much for joining us.
Frederick vom Saal: A pleasure to be talking with you.
JC: BPA first came to my attention about three or four years ago when I saw a couple of news reports on YouTube in which you were interviewed. You were expressing grave concerns about this material and saying that it is used extremely widely in many of the products that we use, and that there is a growing body of research that’s linking BPA to quite a long list of human health problems. But, before we get into a discussion of all that, would you mind telling us a little bit more about your background, and what it is that you do? Also, in so far as it might be relevant to our discussion, could you give us a brief layperson’s glimpse of what an endocrine disruptor is?
FvS: Yes, my background is in reproductive endocrinology and neurobiology focusing on developmental effects of hormones. An endocrine disruptor refers to a chemical that can interfere with the hormonal signals that control the development of organs during foetal life, and then control the functioning of those organs later on. An example would be the hormones testosterone and oestrogen, oestradiol. These two sex hormones control development of the reproductive system, and then in adulthood they control the functioning of the reproductive system. Just as an example, if female foetuses are exposed to higher-than-normal levels of testosterone, they can come out with the external appearance - the genitals - of a male, because that’s not genetically controlled, that’s hormonally controlled. So an endocrine disruptor is a chemical that interferes with the ability of the natural hormones in the body to control those normal developmental processes. It’s not just the reproductive system: it’s the brain; the immune system; the skeletal system; the amount of fat you have; the whole metabolic control systems that determine how you grow and function. So these chemicals have the ability to disrupt just about every aspect of the way a person functions.
JC: This material, BPA, is one of those disruptors. Could you give us a brief description of what kind of substance Bisphenol A is, and what there is about it that should be of particular concern to us?
FvS: Bisphenol A is, as the name implies, a phenolic compound. BPA is one of a very large class of compounds that are able to interact with the receptors that allow oestrogens to cause effects in the human body and in animals. BPA is actually an oestrogenic drug that, back in the 1930s, was considered for use as a drug. Instead other chemicals ended up being used as oestrogenic drugs. In the 1950s, chemists (who had no background to allow them to understand that this actually was an oestrogen, a sex hormone) without thinking about that used it to make a kind of hard, clear plastic called polycarbonate, and also used it to make resins that line cans. It’s used as composite for tooth sealants and tooth replacement. It has many different uses. It’s used in paints, glues - CDs are made from it - helmets and wind shields. The really big problem is that it’s used as a plastic material that food is put in. It lines cans, and it’s coated on the surface of receipt paper, airline tickets and ATM machine receipts. When you touch those receipts your skin becomes full of BPA. So there are many ways that we are exposed to this chemical: through food, through air, and also through our skin coming into contact with products such as thermal paper.
JC: Why is it used so much? There must be many different reasons for its use in so many products. Why are manufacturers so drawn to this substance?
FvS: That’s an interesting question. For a plastic, it has the appearance of a hard, glass-like substance. But, as any chemist will tell you, that appearance is an illusion, because the molecule that makes up the polycarbonate (which is just chains of Bisphenol A molecules) is actually a relatively unstable polymer - particularly when it's heated, or exposed to acidic or alkaline substances. For instance, an acidic substance might be tomato sauce, and if the can is lined with Bisphenol A, you’re going to get a breakdown of the chains of BPA into free BPA; and in its free form it’s going to act like a sex hormone.
JC: You say that this leeches out under certain circumstances; in an acidic environment it leeches out from the lining into the food itself.
FvS: Absolutely. When food is put into cans, it's heated to hundreds of degrees to sterilise it. If you take high heat and acid and put that in contact with these chains of Bisphenol A molecules, the chains are broken apart. The way Bisphenol A is used in plastic and in the lining of cans, it is not heat-resistant, and it is not resistant to acidic substances.
JC: This all would sound OK if there were no possibility of it being a problem for human health, but one of the things that triggered my interest in the subject was your claim that there is a growing body of research linking BPA to many different diseases in human beings. Could you give us some kind of list as to the possible ill effects of this material?
FvS: Yes, up until about five or six years ago, we had hundreds of studies from animals showing a wide range of harm from BPA; but over the last five years there have been over sixty studies identifying harm in humans. What I’m going to tell you is from over sixty studies that have reported this kind of harm in people.
So, let’s take the female reproductive system. There’s a disease called polycystic ovarian disease, PCOS, in which a woman’s ovaries are not functioning properly. She’s not producing normal ova sites, and her ovaries are not responding properly to hormones; BPA is implicated in that. We and other people have reported in scientific publications that BPA levels are associated with: a decrease in the ability of eggs produced by women to be fertilised; with the quality of the embryos they’re producing; with the ability of these embryos to implant into the uterus, and to establish a pregnancy; with abnormalities in the woman’s uterus; and with her ability to respond normally to hormones. Women have a greater incidence of miscarriage and premature delivery. So all aspects of becoming pregnant and having a normal baby develop [are associated] and the probability of that happening normally decreases as the levels of BPA in a woman’s body go up. Finally, BPA is related to breast cancer according to extensive animal research on that and also human data.
On the male side, the male is also contributing to fertility problems when couples are having fertility problems. First of all, male sexual function is impaired in relation to BPA levels. Sperm quality is impaired and sex hormone levels are rendered abnormal as BPA levels get higher. A critical thing with BPA is that it is related to obesity and diabetes: type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. This is one of the major issues in public health. Not only are people’s fertility [levels] somehow being compromised in many countries around the world, including the UK, but obesity is becoming a global epidemic, and so is type II diabetes; BPA is related to that. It’s related to underlying abnormalities in the immune system, to abnormal kidney and liver function, and to behavioural and neurobiological changes such as decreased IQ and aggression changes. Again, these are human studies. All of the things I just told you, there are hundreds in experimental animals showing exactly the same things.
JC: It is an astonishing list that you’ve just given us. It’s often said in that male fertility in the West is declining rapidly. Do you think there’s a possibility that BPA is a substantial contributor to that?
FvS: Well, it is definitely a contributor, because that’s what the animal experimental data and the human epidemiological data show. But there are over a thousand endocrine disrupting chemicals that have been identified. Only a few of them, such as Bisphenol A, have been extensively studied, so we don’t have enough understanding to say what proportion of these problems is due to any specific chemical or set of events. We lack too much information to answer that question with confidence.
JC: So from what you’ve said, am I to understand that it’s not just BPA, but in fact there are many other endocrine disruptors, and we’re living in a kind of soup of these things?
FvS: Absolutely, that is correct. But the reason why BPA floats to the top of everybody’s list is that there are over ten billion pounds of this made a year. It's estimated that within a few years we’ll be up to seventeen to eighteen billion pounds of BPA used in products every year. This is one of the highest-volume chemicals in production worldwide. So there’s literally no population anywhere in the world - in the developed or undeveloped countries – [that escapes this]; everybody sampled has BPA in them. It is a global contaminant and that’s why people are so frightened about it.
JC: Why is BPA of special concern in the early stages of human life?
FvS: The endocrine system does two things. It is the co-ordinator of development. If you disrupt the hormonal signals that have to occur at very specific times in development, then those developmental processes that should occur at that time will not occur normally. The consequence of that is, once you go through a developmental fork in the road where a tissue that needs to develop does not develop in the way it should, that can never be reversed. All you have then is a medical problem that has to be dealt with for the rest of that person’s life. So, we look at the developing baby - foetal and new-born in particular - then at development through childhood, and even adolescence. If you short-circuit developing systems, they can never be made to develop normally later in life; you just have to treat that person's abnormality for the rest of their life.
JC: And yet we have a situation where baby bottles are used all the time, and milk is warmed up, and there’s that direct exposure to the child. It’s extraordinary.
FvS: Yes, that’s why baby bottles became one of the first and most obvious targets. They’ve been banned in many states in the United States; legislation has really focused on getting rid of them. In fact, none of the major baby bottle manufacturers even use Bisphenol A in baby bottles anymore. The problem is people keep old baby bottles; there are probably millions of polycarbonate BPA-containing baby bottles that people are still using. If you have any old baby bottles that are hard and clear, and don’t say “BPA Free”, get rid of them, don’t use them.
JC: When did that policy change in manufacturing?
FvS: The policy changed about five years ago. Up until that time the baby bottle industry fought like crazy that BPA was completely safe. Then finally the public just pretty much said: “We won’t buy this anymore.” In Japan this occurred in the late 90s; in North America and in Europe it occurred about four or five years ago. Two years ago the bottle manufacturers agreed that the FDA should ban BPA in baby bottles.
JC: Are the numbers on the bottom of bottles reliable guides?
FvS: Well, the code for BPA is number 7. If it says 7 inside the recycling triangle (which is strange because BPA is not a recyclable plastic), and if it’s BPA, it will also say PC (polycarbonate). Unfortunately there are also other kinds of plastics that can be associated with the number 7, because it's an “other-than-the-above” category; numbers 1 through 6 are specific types of plastic, and number 7 is all the others. It’s always been assumed that 7 denotes BPA because it’s the only one of the “other-than-the-above” chemicals that is produced at this massive multi-billion-pound-per-year quantity.
JC: It is commonly said that the quantities of BPA ingested by consumers is far too small to have any harmful effect, but you contest that. Let me quote what the website FactsAboutBPA.org says about this. I quote: “We know from recent scientific research that because of the way BPA is processed in the body, it is very unlikely that BPA from typical human exposures could cause health effects, based on data from the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC). Typical exposure to BPA is one thousand times below Government safety limits.” That, of course, makes it sound like it’s OK. But if I’ve understood you correctly, you claim that it's not safe at these levels, because even extremely small quantities of this substance can be significantly potent, and so harmful to human health. Could I ask you to explain how such extremely small quantities can have this effect?
FvS: First of all, it’s important to identify that the quote from FactsAboutBPA.org is from the American Chemistry Council, the public relations and lobbying arm of the chemical industry. They are not exactly out there to tell you about the accurate science about BPA; they’re out there selling these products. So, what is the actual truth about this? It goes back to the fact that BPA is not just a poison - it isn’t your classic toxic chemical - it’s a sex hormone, and a sex hormone operates by binding to what is called a hormone receptor. These receptors operate to pull out of the blood where there are a thousand different molecules flowing by a cell, and this receptor grabs onto the one thing that it has evolved to grab onto. In the case of the oestrogen receptor that’s an oestrogen molecule as it flows by the cell. That receptor ignores all other kinds of chemicals, but because BPA is recognized by that receptor as an oestrogen, that receptor can bind onto a BPA molecule. When it does that, it takes that signal from one molecule and it amplifies it. It’s like whispering into a microphone and having a sound like a bomb going off, because the final amplified response caused by that single molecule is absolutely tremendous. My colleagues and I have published papers in endocrine journals called “Large effects from small exposures”, because your natural hormone systems operate where one molecule in a trillion molecules - what is called a part per trillion - can actually stimulate hormonal responses. This is where our hormonal systems operate.
In traditional toxicology the toxicologist is studying poisonous chemicals in the part-per-thousand range, literally a million to a billion times higher than the levels of hormones, and hormonally-active chemicals like BPA. They operate at this extremely low concentration. The problem is, in traditional toxicology nobody ever conceived of a toxicant acting like a sex hormone, so it wasn’t built into the thinking that this kind of exceedingly low level could ever be harmful. But just like you would not want a baby, or a foetus, to be exposed to the oestrogen in a birth control pill, you don’t want them to be exposed to BPA that has the same effects; and at staggeringly low concentrations - the earlier in life you go, the more sensitive the body is to these disruptive effects.
JC: You’re talking here in terms of parts per trillion - one part per trillion. So would I be right in thinking that really there is no safe level of BPA?
FvS: The International Endocrine Society last year published a Statement of Principles that are the fundamental principles of endocrinology. The toxicological community and the regulatory communities, such as the European Food & Safety Authority and the Food & Drug Administration, are not applying the principles of endocrinology to assess the harm that’s possible due to exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA. So, the endocrine community is trying to get the regulatory community and the toxicological community to accept that this is a very unique type of harm caused by a unique type of environmental contaminant that acts like a hormone instead of a traditional poison.
JC: OK, so we have a situation where different parties in this argument are to some extent talking past each other, because they’re working with different paradigms. It’s not fundamentally about the evidence; it’s about a different paradigm.
FvS: Absolutely, and the consequence is that the regulators are looking at these hundreds of studies published about BPA in endocrine journals and saying: “Well this is not traditional toxicology, so we don’t know how to apply these findings to our toxicological assessments.” Therefore, when EFSA did a risk assessment on BPA, it completely ignored the entire scientific literature on BPA, except for two traditional toxicological studies published by the chemical industry that used techniques that predate the field of endocrinology and which would have been used in an experiment a hundred years ago.
JC: Would you say then that the chemical industry is guilty of exploiting this confusion?
FvS: Absolutely. I published an article in 2005 in the leading environmental journal called Environmental Health Perspectives published by the United Station National Institute of Health, in which I pointed out - just based on an analysis of the literature - that one hundred per cent of industry-funded studies came to the conclusion that BPA was completely safe, even though in those studies that’s not actually what the data showed. But over ninety per cent of non industry-funded studies - and we’re up to well over three hundred now – show a staggering array of harm at these unbelievably low doses that the regulatory system still insist are completely safe, even though there are hundreds of studies showing that that is absolutely not true. But they just say: “well they’re not actually studies that we understand, and we don’t know how to interpret them, so we’ll just pretend that they don’t exist.”
JC: I guess another counterclaim is that human beings metabolise BPA so quickly and so efficiently - they get rid of it - so it’s not a problem in that way. How would you respond to that?
FvS: Well, in 2011 we published another article in Environmental Health Perspectives showing that mice, monkeys and humans metabolise Bisphenol A essentially identically. That is very counter-intuitive and not what we expected; but that’s actually what the data show. But the answer is also this: if Bisphenol A is administered using the traditional approach in toxicology, where BPA is directed through a tube down an animal’s throat into the stomach – (or there’s one human study where they administered BPA in a pill so it went into the stomach) - then less that 1% of it becomes biologically active in terms of the amount that gets into the blood from the stomach. But, the problem is that when we consume food, we put it into our mouths. If you were having a heart attack, you would take nitroglycerine and put it under your tongue. Why would you do that instead of just taking it in a pill? Because, if you take it in a pill, the large majority of it is metabolised; if you put it under your tongue, one hundred per cent of it immediately goes into your blood stream [and becomes] available. The whole process of how humans are actually exposed to BPA from food, which is through their mouth into their stomach, is completely being misinterpreted based on studies where it’s put directly into the stomach, bypassing a major uptake route into blood in humans.
JC: I want to ask you about the FDA itself. In some of your previous interviews you were very critical of the Food & Drug Administration in the US, which of course has the responsibility to protect public health and to regulate food safety. You said that, for one reason or another, they seem to be very resistant to taking your kind of research on board. But I note that, in a recent publication on their website called “Bisphenol A Use in Food Contact Application” first published in 2010 (which has been updated in 2012, and then in this year ), they do seem to acknowledge some of these adverse effects that you are mentioning. Let me quote from their overview: “Studies employing standardized toxicity tests have thus far supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA. However, on the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses and young children.” And then they list a number of interim measures to minimise public exposure. Do you see this as a real change in the attitude by the FDA?
FvS: Well, they’re between a rock and a hard place. We have a law called the Toxic Substance Control Act, and various laws that govern the FDA. They were written by industry, for industry, to protect chemicals in commerce, not the public. In that same release that you just read from, you will also find a little further down a statement from the Assistant Commissioner of the FDA, who states [something like]: “Well, one of our problems is we do not have the legal authority to even ask what products BPA is being used in, and we have no authority to regulate it, unless new laws are passed, or new rules would be created that allow us to do that.”
JC: So these interim measures that they talk about are merely suggestions to the industry?
FvS: Essentially. The federal regulatory system in the United States is trapped by out-dated regulations. Practically all chemicals used in products are declared: “generally regarded as safe”, and then, in order to remove them from the market, it has to be proven that they’re causing immense harm in people. [That's] the exact opposite of the standard to put a drug into commerce, [where] you have to identify that it does, what it’s supposed to do, and that the benefits outweigh the harm. So, this is based on extensive testing; whereas with chemicals used in products before they’re actually put into commerce, there’s no testing done. And this is where in Europe the legislation called REACH is actually adopting some of the standards used to allow drugs on the market, and applying that set of principles that chemicals have to be tested before they’re allowed to be put into products. And we want to make sure that chemicals in commerce, particularly high-volume chemicals like BPA, are removed from products if they’re shown to be endocrine disruptors - which BPA is - and not replaced by worse, or equally bad, chemicals.
That’s happened before with flame retardants called brominate diphenol ethers. They replaced chlorinated biphenols, the idea being that putting a bromine on these phenols would make the chemical safe, whereas chlorine would not be safe. Then, thirty years later, everybody’s desperately trying to get rid of the brominated compounds that are just as bad. So, we got rid of the chlorine and replaced it with a set of products that were as bad, or worse. We just can’t keep going through that, and that requires pre-market testing. The United States cannot get that legislation through our Congress, but Europe has managed to do that.
JC: So the situation in the US is that the chemical industry can pretty much put anything they like into products, and then it has to be shown by somebody that this is a problem before it can be acted upon.
FvS: What you said is absolutely correct.
JC: That’s an astonishing state of affairs, isn’t it?
FvS: Well, actually, because we live in a global market, if countries in Europe act to remove the chemical, then it really becomes a global event. If you go back to 1999, when the Europeans acted to remove a class of chemicals called thallates from babies' sucking toys, even though it was only legislation passed by the European Parliament, within six months not one product was being sold in the United States with those chemicals in it. Corporations selling in the United States were also selling in Europe, and they lost the European market. So, Europe can drive the train; the American system is always going to be the end of the tail. We’re the last to do anything, and that has really been the tradition for any kind of environmental regulation. It’s come from outside the United States first, and then we’re the last to get on board.
JC: Would that mean that you place more faith in the European Food Safety Authority?
FvS: Well, unfortunately, the European Food Safety Authority has a serious credibility problem with members of its panels having conflicts of interest, according to a recent front-page article in the major French newspaper Le Monde. [It alleges] that they have people who are under contract with corporations whose chemicals they’re studying for their impact on public health.
In the case of BPA, a German scientist, Wolfgang Dekant, has acknowledged having something like eighteen different contracts with the polycarbonate industry - the BPA-producing chemical corporations - and he was a member of the European Food Safety Authority panel that dictated the panel’s lack of concern with BPA. He clearly had a big impact on that, and he had not accurately reported his conflicts of interest. He recently announced publicly that he was resigning from some European Commission panel because he was too busy, [but really] because somebody in the Le Monde article had blown the whistle on him and shown that he had these conflicts. Well, this turns out to be true for a substantial number of people on the EFSA panels. So, they need to tighten up their ethics and conflict rules in order to [regain] public faith in their decision-making.
JC: Going back to the US situation, in which the FDA’s hands are essentially tied unless there is very compelling evidence of a problem with a product: Is it not the case that most of the research on BPA is industry-funded? And if that’s the case, what hope is there that research is going to be produced that is not compromised?
FvS: Well, actually, BPA is in a unique situation. For most chemicals, industry is providing the only information we have about them. But, because so many articles started to be published between 2000 and 2005/6, in 2008 (associated with the stimulus money) the National Institute of Health decided to put millions of dollars into BPA research with the idea that it would become essentially the model endocrine-disrupting chemical, about which they would know huge amount. What's disappointing about this explosion of publications about Bisphenol A is that the regulatory system is still saying: “We don’t know how to interpret these studies, because they’re not traditional toxicology studies.” They’re using modern approaches: genetic approaches, and molecular approaches that are never used in toxicological studies for regulatory purposes, and the regulators are just saying: “Well we don’t know what to do with them, so we’ll just ignore them.” And EFSA is still doing that.
JC: So, because of this confusion, industry can produce statements such as we find at FactsAboutBPA.org, which you say is an industry-funded website. On one of their pages it claims that all our worries about BPA are based on myths. They speak of 'myths and realities'. Things such as causing women to miscarry, breast cancer, concerns about polycarbonates and food storage, all these things are based on myths; in reality, they’re all safe. Again, do you think they are simply exploiting the confusion about all the things you’ve just been discussing in order to make these amazingly confident statements about the safety of BPA?
FvS: Well, if you believe in a weight-of-evidence approach, where you actually look at all of the studies out there, the great majority of studies show harm. The only studies that don’t show harm are produced by the chemical industry. So, what they’re really saying is: “Our studies show Bisphenol A to be completely safe. The regulatory system only uses our studies to make decisions. Therefore they conclude BPA is safe.” The reality is - if you look at modern approaches to science using the tools of molecular biology and 21st Century science, instead of essentially early 20th Century science which [characterises] the studies on which the EFSA and FDA are basing their decisions - then this is a pretty scary chemical. Everything that the American Chemistry Council is saying on that BPA.org website is propaganda; it’s not reflecting what is really out there in the scientific literature.
JC: Is there any way in which we can make changes in our lives to minimise our exposure to this substance?
FvS: I would advise you to do as I do. (In our lab, we have what's called the validated assay for Bisphenol A which uses very sophisticated equipment called the tendermass spectrometer, and my BPA levels are very low.) The reason is: when I go to a store and somebody wants to give me a receipt, I won’t touch the receipt. If I need it, I’ll put it into an envelope, because the BPA that coats the receipt surface is like invisible talcum powder. If you put it in your pocket, or wallet, or anything, it contaminates anything else that goes in there. And once it gets on your skin – if your skin is moist, or you’ve used hand sanitiser – it can penetrate into your body very rapidly. So I avoid contact with any kind of receipt paper. I avoid any kind of canned product; I drink nothing and I eat nothing out of cans. That’s a huge source of exposure to Bisphenol A.
JC: Is it true also of cartons too? Are they lined as well?
FvS: It depends on the kind of resin that's used. One of the problems the public faces is that this is all declared to be confidential information. Not only do you, as a member of the public, not know what’s in that [carton], none of the regulatory agencies know what the lining is made out of [either], and that’s in that 2012 FDA statement. They actually say that they don’t even have the authority to get these corporations to tell them what products have BPA in them. So, it’s not just that we’re ignorant; it’s the entire regulatory system is ignorant of where these chemicals are being used.
JC: Is it true also that this chemical is involved in plastic casing for televisions and computers and the like.
FvS: Yes, and it’s used in polyvinyl chloride toys, because PVC is hard but brittle, but BPA is hard and not brittle. You add these horrible chemicals called Thallates to PVC to make it soft, and then you add BPA to bring it back to a different kind of hardness. So your typical baby doll will have two very harmful chemicals in it: Thallates and Bisphenol A. Many plastic products [have BPA]: televisions, helmets, computer screens. And when you heat up that item, you’re going to off-gas BPA.
JC: Does this also apply to cling film, that you might put over food and heat in a microwave oven?
FvS: No, BPA would typically not be used in them, although we have found cling film that has had BPA in it, but not all cling film does. It's important to note that, for all of these plastic uses of BPA, there are alternative plastics such as polyethaline that are inherently safer and which could be used to replace BPA. The Japanese no longer line their tins with BPA. That changed fourteen years ago, [yet] the American and European can manufacturers still claim there’s no alternative. When you point out to them that the Japanese did it a long time ago, they get a little embarrassed.
JC: Let's say I stop eating food from cans; I no longer drink water from bottles; I'm very careful about what I pick off the shelf; I don’t touch till receipts; nevertheless I have a television, a computer, a car with a plastic dashboard. How can I possibly keep my hands off all these products?
FvS: The answer is: that’s why nobody out there has no BPA in them. This is a ubiquitous contaminant; everybody’s got some. But [based on] the epidemiological studies I looked at, it's clear that - with respect to diabetes, heart disease, all kinds of reproductive problems and neurobiological problems - the lower your levels of this chemical, the healthier you’re likely to be. So, anything you can do - such as to avoid canned products, to avoid touching these receipts and to avoid buying plastic that doesn’t say “BPA-free” - will reduce your exposure to this chemical. Anything you can do that reduces your exposure will make you healthier.
JC: Can we reverse many of the effects of this chemical?
FvS: Yes, it’s not a long-lived chemical in your body. It’s not like dioxin, or the chemical DTD, or these flame-retardants that can last in your body for decades. In fact, BPA is cleared from your body within a number of days, and it isn’t stored at high levels. So, if you shut off the tap and are not being exposed to it as an adult, the consequences can be reversed. It's like a woman taking a birth-control pill; it controls and suppresses her ability to reproduce, but when she stops taking it, her body can recover. The problem with foetuses is that, when pregnant women or new born babies are exposed to it during critical periods in development, then the developmental event is damaged. That is irreversible. So, the imperative is critical for developing babies and foetuses to be protected from this chemical. The French regulatory agency ANCIS is in the process of trying to get this out of all products that are used to contain food by 2015. EFSA is fighting the French attempts to do this tooth and nail, but it looks like the French are holding strong and intend to do it, because there are alternatives already on the market that we know are safer than BPA.
JC: I suppose we consumers can help to drive that situation by avoiding BPA products and therefore force the market in a more healthy direction?
FvS: That’s happening all over the world where people are looking at products that say ‘BPA-free’, and they’re choosing them. It’s really the market place that’s driving the change by the industry, not the regulatory system. It’s simply like what happened with the baby bottles: people stopped buying them. It became obvious that this was no longer a viable way to make baby bottles.
JC: Before we close, is there anything else you feel we missed out that you think is important to add?
FvS: Well, one last thing that’s been very disappointing, and kind of scary, is that we used to focus on the ability of chemicals to cause classic mutations in the genetic code. Now we realise that hormones, and hormone-disrupting chemicals like BPA, alter the ability of genes to function; and this is a critical part of normal development. You begin as one cell, and you have nerve cells and muscle cells and skin cells that all have the same genes. But in the skin cell, the nerve cell genes are turned off. Well, this process of turning on and turning off genes is called epigenetics (outside the normal study of genetics). It’s the [abnormal] turning on and off of genes that's leading to the life-time inability of this system to function normally. And, horrifyingly, we’re finding that these abnormal marks, that turn off or on genes inappropriately, are being transmitted across generations in a way that nobody thought twenty years ago was possible. We’re seeing these cause trans-generational abnormalities. If a grandmother is exposed to a chemical, her grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren can suffer abnormalities due to that exposure. Nobody thought that was possible. That kind of environmental impact was attributed to a person named Lamarck, and everybody thought that idea was crazy. Well, it turns out there’s some truth to it, not in the way he described it, but we now understand substantially the molecular biology of that, and it’s really scary.
JC: Now, as this is such an important subject - and given what you've just said, even more important than I realised - could you direct people towards resources that would be of help to them to understand this more?
FvS: Yes, the World Health Organization, together with the United Nations (UNEP), has just published a major report on endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The WHO report is really becoming a guide for concern about them, and it mentions many of the problems we are talking about. It's online and available to the public.
JC: I shall locate that and put it in the show notes. Dr. vom Saal, it has been a privilege to have you on the programme. You’ve given us a great deal of information to consider, and I think this conversation will be helpful for many people, as it has certainly been helpful to me. Thank you very much for sparing this time to talk with us.
FvS: It has been a pleasure talking with you.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by Dr. vom Saal in this interview are his responsibility alone; they do not necessarily reflect those of The Mind Renewed.