Europe seeks drastic cut to BPA exposure
Current BPA rules do not protect our health, a new assessment concludes – in sharp contrast with US policies.
BPA is about to disappear from European burger wrappers, soft drink bottles, canned food liners and all other food packaging.
A proposal being considered by European regulators finds that current BPA exposure limits vastly underestimate the harm the plastic additive causes to human health. The revised rules say the new exposure threshold should be 20,000 times lower than today's level.
If the recommendations in the new assessment — released today by the European Food Safety Authority, the European equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — are adopted, it would more than likely force bisphenol-A, or BPA, out of products that come into contact with food in Europe.
“This new safe level is so low that it will drive and accelerate changes in the supply chain,” Maricel V. Maffini, an environmental consultant focused on environmental chemical exposures who has worked with the Environmental Defense Fund and others, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
Related: What it will take for the EU to be a model for safe chemicals
The new assessment and recommended daily dose is more in line with current science, which continues to find BPA impacts our health in myriad ways. It is also in stark contrast to U.S. regulations of the ubiquitous chemical. The U.S. safe daily exposure level for BPA, which was set in 1988, is 250,000 times higher than the new European recommendation.
The new risk assessment “provides scientific evidence that makes it urgent for FDA and other agencies to act to reduce the levels of exposure,” Maffini told EHN.
EHN asked the FDA why that exposure level has stayed the same for 35 years and about the discrepancy between U.S. and European agencies’ BPA safety determinations.
“The FDA has supported research and reviewed the safety of BPA uses in food packaging as it has become available,” a spokesperson wrote in an emailed response. “The FDA’s regulatory decisions are grounded in the robust evaluation of the totality of the available science on food additives, including substances used in food packaging.”
BPA in our blood
The European Food Safety Authority estimates that most people, including kids, have more than a hundred times more BPA in their blood than their new recommended daily dose.
BPA is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it alters the proper functioning of our hormones. The chemical has been linked to multiple health problems, including cancer, diabetes, obesity, reproductive, nervous and immune system impacts, and behavioral problems. It remains a key ingredient in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins — ending up in Tupperware, food can liners and other food packaging. The chemical can leach out of such packaging and get into our food.
Most people have BPA in their blood. The European Food Safety Authority estimates that most people, including infants and toddlers, have more than a hundred times more BPA in their blood than their new recommended daily dose.
Academic scientists and health advocates have for years called into question how BPA and other endocrine disruptors — such as phthalates, some flame retardants, pesticides — are regulated. Most federal agencies subscribed to the concept that “the dose makes the poison.” However, for chemicals like BPA, that’s not always true and sometimes low doses and high doses can have different effects: Europe’s new assessment recognizes that.
Europe’s latest move on BPA
Today’s assessment, which included a broad range of human and animal studies, represents the latest European move on BPA.
OK, here’s some math: In 2015 the agency set a temporary “tolerable daily intake” for BPA of 4 parts per billion of body weight — which is more than 12 times lower than the U.S. level of 50 ppb. In 2021, the European Food Safety Authority recommended slashing the allowable daily dose to 0.00004 ppb of body weight per day – a 100,000-fold drop. Today’s assessment revises that 2021 recommendation up to a 0.0002 ppb tolerable daily intake — but that still represents a 20,000-fold drop from Europe’s current allowable levels.
The bottom line? Even the tiniest amount of BPA in, say, the cap of a soda bottle will violate the new exposure limits. Europe says we basically shouldn’t have BPA in our products at all if we don’t want health impacts.
The assessment released today will go to the European Commission, which will make the final decision on changes to allowable BPA levels.
As part of the reevaluation, the European Food Safety Authority reviewed new studies on BPA since 2013, and pointed out that some of the most critical research came out of the CLARITY-BPA Core Study, which was a U.S. research effort meant to bridge the gap between FDA scientists and academics and environmental health advocates.
While well-meaning, the program didn’t work out as planned: Academics found BPA was having a profound impact on various health endpoints in lab studies, but the FDA didn’t consider the academic contributions and put out a 2018 report, along with the National Toxicology Program, stating the current uses of BPA remain safe. Environmental Health News investigated the CLARITY project and found, via Freedom of Information requests and dozens of interviews, the FDA often sought to discredit the independent evidence of harm from BPA while favoring pro-industry science despite significant shortcomings.
European researchers, however, found the academic contributions to CLARITY quite useful in their latest assessment. They used such studies to show evidence of harm to thyroid, pituitary and adrenal glands, bone marrow, kidneys and livers. Maffini also pointed out that studies show “the immune system is the most sensitive to BPA toxicity.”
Pete Myers — chief scientist for Environmental Health Sciences which publishes EHN.org — has been following the BPA saga since the early 1990s when University of Missouri scientist Fred vom Saal’s research first started to appear on BPA as an endocrine disrupting compound.
Commenting on this new assessment, Myers said “it’s not surprising but it is reassuring that European Food Safety Authority’s estimates of BPA safety are consistent with the work of 18 independent investigators who participated in the CLARITY-BPA mega-study.”
Myers said it’s also not surprising that the findings are dramatically different from the conclusion that the U.S. FDA drew from CLARITY. “The FDA chose to ignore all the work of the independent scientists, established experts funded by the National Institutes of Health. It makes you wonder for whom FDA scientists are working. The public or the chemical industry.”
US review of BPA safety
After Europe’s recommended slashing of BPA allowable doses last year, a group of doctors, scientists and health organizations petitioned the U.S. FDA to review the safety of BPA in food packaging. The FDA accepted the petition last summer, which means they need to complete an assessment that justifies whether they will accept the petition’s suggestions or not. That assessment hasn’t happened yet.
The FDA is currently reviewing a BPA petition we received in September 2022 … [and] does not comment on petitions that are under review,” the spokesperson said. “We will publish our response to the petition in the Federal Register once we have completed our review.”
Maffini, who submitted the petition along with several organizations, said “the finalized European Food Safety Authority risk assessment confirming that BPA is toxic to the immune system at extremely low levels should give FDA a greater sense of urgency to act on the petition that is already overdue.”