For years we’ve been hearing about the potential dangers of the substance known as bisphenol A, or BPA, which has been used widely since the 1960s as a component of plastic products. A new study from the journal Health Affairs has estimated some of the costs that can be attributed to the chemical. In 2008, the study concluded, BPA was associated with an additional 12,404 cases of childhood obesity and 33,863 cases of heart disease in the U.S, costing society a total of almost $3 billion. Removing the chemical from food containers could significantly reduce those estimates, the study concluded.
Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year banned BPA from baby bottles because of concern about its potent effects on developing organisms, the chemical is still found in food and drink containers, thermal receipts, dental sealants and other products. Chemical producers generate more than one million pounds of BPA a year, although some manufacturers have voluntarily restricted its use.
BPA is believed to contribute to obesity by affecting insulin production; the postulated association with heart disease, which has been found in observational studies, is less well-understood. The author of the Health Affairs study, Leonardo Trasande, M.D., M.P.P., associate professor (pending) of pediatrics, environmental medicine and health policy at New York University, notes that childhood obesity and adult heart disease are only two of the potential health impacts of BPA. The Endocrine Society, he writes, “has identified BPA as an endocrine-disrupting chemical with broad public health significance and the potential to alter hormonal systems,” and BPA exposure “has been associated with adverse neurobehavioral development, cancer, asthma and fertility outcomes.”
Dr. Trasande’s numbers, of course, sound extremely precise and authoritative, even though they’re simply the result of complex mathematical modeling. It bears repeating that any such accounting is by definition speculative, with findings based on a series of calculations based on a series of assumptions based upon a series of sometimes ambiguous scientific studies.
So the numbers must be interpreted with caution. Even so, the study raises interesting questions and concerns about how to measure the fractional contribution of environmental toxins to serious health problems. It’s a debate that is likely to become more and more frequent as research continues to advance our understandings of the impact of such chemical pollutants on our lives and health.