Thursday, November 8, 2012

BPA: 15th Century Science Keeps Hormone Mimic in Food Supply

Sierra Magazine recently asked me to do an update on the status of the hormone disruptor, BPA, a chemical that is used in the linings of almost all food and beverage cans. Space was short and I could not explain the science behind what otherwise is a “he said, they said” back and forth controversy that leaves you wondering whether there really is a danger.
Instead, here's what you need to understand: The FDA and chemical manufacturers insist that these chemicals are safe in the low amounts which we ingest because tests on animals of VERY LARGE amounts do not result in the breast cancers, changes in mammary glands, lowered sperm counts, obesity, and behavior changes, found when VERY LOW doses of the chemicals are tested. Read on to learn more.
If you eat or drink enough of anything, even water,  eventually it will kill you. That’s the idea behind the adage,  “The dose makes the poison,”  a principle that still, in fact, governs safety decisions about human exposure to radiation, chemicals and contaminants of all kinds.
But what if that paradigm were turned on its head? What if tiny, indeed minutely small doses of a chemical could cause cancer and other health problems that would not occur at larger doses?
This is what scientists have told me is the case with hormone-disrupting chemicals including  Bisphenol A (BPA), pthalates, atrazine and other similar chemicals. Now gone from plastic baby and water bottles because of public pressure on manufacturers, BPA is still used in the lining of almost all food and beverage cans. Analyses have found that traces of BPA migrate from the linings into the food we eat.
However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declined to ban  the substance. Its reason: “standardized toxicity tests” find that the chemical is safe.
But standardized toxicity tests are based on the-dose-makes-the-poison principle. And that is exactly the problem because hormones are very different from other substances.
 “At millions of times lower than what toxicologists study, then you see the harm that is not predicted by just looking at what happens at a high dose,” said reproductive biologist Dr. Frederick Vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who has studied BPA extensively. . 
“Massive scientific evidence, “  Vom Saal told me in a phone interview, “shows that hormones operate at staggeringly low doses." In fact, he says, medical students in their first two weeks learning endocrinology learn that our cells are specially programmed to let in the miniscule amounts of hormones, like estrogen,  that naturally circulate in our bodies, but block larger amounts. "The concept that higher doses are always worse than low doses comes from an idea from the 1500s," says Vom Saal. "The old-line toxicologists will not accept that they’ve been ignorant of the last century of endocrinology.”
As an example of how hormones operate, Vom Saal cited Tamoxifen, a hormone treatment for hormone-sensitive breast cancer. “Tamoxifen at high doses inhibits breast cancer growth, but if you let the dose get too low, it will stimulate breast cancer,” said Vom Saal. “This is indicated on every bottle of tamoxifen. That is a signature of how hormones operate.” Tamoxifen is a hormone mimic. (
I asked John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, about Vom Saal’s statements.
“His perspective is shared by a vast minority of endocrinologists,” he insisted. “I do believe there is a big controversy about this low-dose hypothesis, what effect chemicals can have at low doses. But as a regulated industry, it is important for us to look to the regulators and see what conclusions they come to about this. That has happened at the FDA, (and their conclusion) is that current levels of exposure are safe.”
The linings inside cans prevent the food and the metal from interacting. Rost explained that many foods are corrosive to metal, creating pinholes through which microbes can enter food. Tin was originally used to coat metal cans; then oleoresin came into use. About 35 years ago, said Rost, epoxy became the “gold standard” of can coatings. BPA is a key ingredient in the epoxy.
“Since the move to epoxy, there has not been a food-borne illness case arising from the failure of metal packaging,” he concluded.
However, the effects of hormone mimics like BPA are totally different from, for example, botulism, whose contamination of canned food is the telltale swollen can.
Endocrinologists have documented feminizing effects in fish, amphibians, and reptiles exposed to tiny doses of Atrazine, a very widely used weed-killer, that also mimics estrogen and has been shown to turn male frogs into females.  Even the FDA said  it had “some concern”about the effects of BPA “on the brains, behavior and prostate glands” of fetuses, infants and young children.
The hormone mimic pthalates, a so-called plasticizer, has been found to cause reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and structural abnormalities in the reproductive systems of male test animals, reports the Environmental Working Group.
Food is a major route of human exposure to pthalates, according to Sarah Janssen, senior scientist in the public health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), but how it gets there is something of a mystery. “We all have pthalates in our bodies, but it is not directly added to foods," said Janssen in an interview. "But it is a contaminant in food processing. It could be from the plastic wrap, or where it’s stored, or from the tubing” used in milking machines.
It was the NRDC that petitioned the FDA to ban BPA in food packaging.  
The record shows that when it comes to these chemicals, the FDA is following rather than leading regulatory changes. After  manufacturers eliminated BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups  in response to public alarm, the FDA followed by codifying their action, banning the chemical’s use in those products.
Some manufacturers are acting ahead of the FDA in regard to BPA in food can linings as well.  Campbells announced its intention to phase out BPA in the linings of soup cans, an action that followed a big drop in sales, according to Bloomberg News. Consumers avoided the soup after the Breast Cancer Fund tested food products popular with children, including Campbell soup, and found traces of the chemical.  A Campbell’s company spokesperson, Anthony Sanzio, told me there was no specific timeline set for the change.
Last June, the FDA said it also intended  to ban BPA from infant formula cans but no regulations have yet been issued.
Eden Foods switched away from BPAlinings in 1999, putting its organic beans in cans lined with an oleoresinous c-enamel, a mixture of oil and resin extracted from plants like pine and balsam fir.  Recently it began putting its tomato products in amber glass jars when it could find no suitable can lining replacement.
The NRDC’s Janssen said finding safe replacements is not simple. “Many replacements have not been adequately tested,” she said.
The big losers if the use of BPA is curtailed would be some of the world’s largest chemical companies. Dow, Bayer, and Saudi Basic Industries, owned by the Saudi government are the biggest players in a market estimated at $2 billion in annual sales.
Vom Saal sees this potential financial loss as the motive for the lack of action by the FDA. “It’s very political,” he says. “They (the FDA) are protecting the corporations at the expense of public health.”

What you can do:  Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, avoid the canned varieties.
Fruits and vegetables tend to be acidic, and acid increases the amount of BPA that leaches from the can lining into the food. Buy tomato products and juices in glass jars or tetrapacks to avoid potential BPA contamination. Many soups are now also available in paper/aluminum packages known as  tetrapacks.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Imaginary Threat from Sharia Law

I was at a party recently where the guests weren't afraid of discussing politics--a refreshing contrast from dull conversations where people studiously avoid any possibly controversial topic. A woman friend I don't know particularly well suddenly asserted that Sharia law--Islamic law based on the Koran and interpretations of it--was being used to decide cases in U.S. courts.

She startled me. I immediately envisioned American women slipping down a road toward the wearing of veils, prohibitions on our driving and participation in public life, and to subservience to men backed up by law enforcement. I am a passionate feminist and I have long asserted that as long as any woman anywhere in the world is subject to such discrimination, no woman anywhere is truly safe.

So I challenged this friend. I told her I simply didn't believe it, and I asked her to please send me any evidence she had that Sharia law is being used in U.S. court cases.

Well, she didn't contact me, but her claim bothered me like a bad tooth. It wasn't long before I had to do what I've now spent 40 years doing: practicing some journalism to find out the truth.

Now, I don't claim to have done days of research or original interviews with sources of information. But I did go beyond TV reports on Fox News, and I did have a look at the web site of the leader of the anti-Sharia movement, David Yerushalmi of the Society of Americans for National Existence. You have to register to be a member to see the whole site, but even without that you can amuse yourself by reading Yerushalmi's attempt to prove he is not a racist and misogynist. He's had to defend himself against the charge because he wrote: "There is a reason the Founding Fathers did not give women or black slaves the vote." 

He insists he is only asking the question, why? To wit, if the founders were such great men, revered to this day, why would they take such a position? He says he knows how people like me, whom he immediately labels as "fellow travelers" will answer. He says I believe that the reason is that American was founded on evil. Not!

 If I needed immediate proof that Yershalmi exists in a paranoid world of his own making, that's it. Apparently he never, for example, read the letters from Abigail Adams to John Adams while he was at the constitutional convention. John made it clear in answering his wife's plea not to forget the women, that the men there saw no reason to give up their power over women and property. But they founded  a country on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They were imperfect products of the times they lived in, and it would take and did take centuries and many generations to change the status of women and blacks in the U.S., and will probably take many more before women have equal rights everywhere.

But I digress. So what did I find when I looked for evidence that Sharia law was undermining American law, particularly in ways that might erode the civil rights of women and others?

I found lots of discussion of a Florida case involving a lawsuit against a mosque and control of $2.2 million. Several men who said they were improperly ousted as trustees of the mosque sought an arbitration decision from an Islamic scholar. The mosque itself then challenged this use of Sharia law in a Florida court. Major threat? I don't think so. And, I learned, in cases involving Orthodox Jews in dispute with each other, it is not uncommon for U.S. judges to refer to Judaic law.

I found another case about guiding Muslim investors toward investments that are ethical under Sharia law. The Thomas More Law Center had mounted a lawsuit with--yes, he turns up again--co-counsel David Yerushalmi against the U.S. government's bailout of giant insurance and investment corporation AIG. Some of the bailout money was used for two AIG subsidiaries that practice Sharia-compliant financing.

Sharia-compliant investing is another flavor of social investing, the widespread practice of investing according to beliefs beyond the supremacy of the bottom line. Some people won't invest in companies in the tobacco or weapons businesses.  Sharia investing guidelines include prohibitions against charging interest (who knew that?) and I assume would also counsel against buying into companies that make alcoholic beverages, for example. AIG was simply going after Islamic investors, not forcing anyone to do anything.

No surprise, the court ruled against the claim that the bailout of AIG was unconstitutional, finding there was no evidence of religious indoctrination.

That didn't stop the Law Center from putting out this headline:
Sharia Law Gains Foothold in US--Federal Judge Upholds Government Funding of Islam
So what's going on? Why was my friend so concerned about the threat of Sharia Law? Why are so many state governments convinced there is a threat that they are working on--and passing-- legislation to outlaw the use of Sharia law in the U.S.?

You can find the answers here, in the report "Fear, Inc.," published last August by the Center for American Progress." This report pins responsibility on "a small group of conservative foundations and wealthy donors (who) are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America, supporting a central nervous system consisting of a clutch of misinformation experts." One of the five, of course, is David Yerushalm.

It goes on to describe "a well-developed right-wing media echo chamber" that amplifies this small group. It consists of  "a loosely  aligned, ideologically-akin group of right-wing blogs, magazines, radio stations, newspapers, and television news shows," most prominently Fox.

I never ascribe motives to people I have never met nor thoroughly investigated. But there's no doubt about the impact of their misinformation activities. Their fear-mongering clearly has the effect of scaring a significant number of Americans into supporting and therefore justifying our monster-sized military, our continued role as the world's largest arms dealer, our continual sabre-rattling, our continual wars. And all of that is in service of maintaining the power status quo in Washington and the world that ensures that the 1% get richer and richer while the rest of us argue about and tremble at overblown threats.