(Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez)
Our June investigative report on a Texas courtroom battle over “estrogenic-active” chemicals in consumer plastics is part of a much larger story involving compelling evidence that the plastics industry is hiding the toxicity of a product used in millions of American homes every day.
The Eastman Chemical Company has spent millions of dollars on attorneys’ fees and expert witnesses in an attempt to prove that its trademarked resins used widely in consumer plastics do not cause prostate and breast cancer, behavioral disorders, and reproductive problems in laboratory animals and by extrapolation in humans—the same symptomatology that university and medical-school research has linked to plastics made from the controversial chemical BPA.
CertiChem and PlastiPure, two storefront labs founded by a University of Texas biology professor, have spent millions on attorneys’ fees and expert witnesses to defend themselves after their testing found the Eastman resins contain the same estrogenic activity (EA) that makes BPA a health risk.
|IF BPA disrupts functions of the body, and if BPA causes abnormalities in human cells at a trillionth of a gram, why is plastic made with BPA found in every grocery store in the U.S.?|
Yet if BPA is such a health risk that Eastman would spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing an “EA-free” substitute, and another $10 million in court trying to prove that its new product is not like BPA, why is BPA still found in every grocery store and most kitchens in the U.S.?
BPA is a synthetic estrogen made from petroleum. Before it was widely used in consumer plastics, it was considered for pharmaceutical use as an estrogen supplement.
Outside a small circle of chemical-company executives and the scientists they keep on retainer, no one argues that drinking or eating estrogen on a daily basis is safe. Eastman Chief Toxicologist James Deyo’s response to a question asked in a deposition—that campaigns to ban BPA are based on “consumer hysteria”—is representative of industry science.
Scientists from the academic community have followed a growing body of research data to a very different conclusion.
Bioterrorism in a Lab
“If you wanted to design a bioterrorism chemical, bisphenol A [BPA] is what you would make,” Frederick vom Saal told me in a telephone interview.
Vom Saal is also one of the researchers who discovered the risks associated with low doses of BPA. He described research that concludes there is BPA inside the bodies of more than 90 percent of Americans in amounts of 2 millionths per gram per liter of blood. While a millionth of a gram seems inconsequential, vom Saal said BPA can cause abnormalities in human cells at a trillionth of a gram.
A paper on vom Saal’s recent research on mice will be published in a forthcoming issue of Reproductive Toxicology.
“We measured BPA in maternal and fetal blood [after dosing females] and what we found in the male offspring up to about five months of age is every component of metabolic disease,” he said.
“They are overweight, they have more fat, can’t handle glucose … have elevated insulin, are overeating at one age and undereating but getting fat at another. A total nightmare.”
Vom Saal explained that the human estrogen response system is “tuned to respond to parts per trillion of estrogen in a person’s blood.” His research has also revealed that unlike natural estrogen, BPA bypasses a protein that binds up much of the natural estrogen in the blood and stops it from entering cells.
“When we saw that, we said holy moly, everybody says this stuff is really weak,” vom Saal said. “But if it’s going to bypass this critical plasma protein that modulates estrogen activity, this thing is a hell of a lot more potent.”
In other words, ingested or absorbed into the body, BPA becomes a raging hormone that at very low doses alters the way the body functions.
And very low is “very low.”
Vom Saal fed BPA to mice in dosages 25,000 times lower than other researchers had previously tested and found that it “wrecked the male reproductive system.” The dosage was also 25,000 times lower than what the plastics industry has published as a “no-effect” or “safe” level for BPA in humans.
The signature mark of BPA, according to vom Saal and three other developmental biologists I spoke to, is its hyper-potency at extremely low doses.
What Mice Tell Us
There’s no research data on humans because, as one research biologist told me, no scientist would consider dosing humans with estrogenic-active chemicals. The absence of human research allows plastic manufacturers to defend their product by stating the obvious. Mice are not humans.
Vom Saal responds to that argument with an account of a public health disaster that was predicted by rodent studies.
From 1938 until it was pulled from the market in 1971, the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) was prescribed for pregnant women to prevent miscarriage. There were unintended consequences. Women who took DES during pregnancy had a higher risk of breast cancer. One generation later, the daughters of those women experienced increased incidences of breast cancer, cancer of the vagina and cervix, and fertility problems.
“DES daughters at age 50 are now showing increased rates of breast cancer,” vom Saal said. “That was predicted by mouse studies 30 years ago.
“The mouse has predicted over 95 percent of human responses to DES. That’s why we consider the mouse data, especially for the reproductive organs, to be very scary with regard to humans.”
“Cancer of the prostate takes decades,” vom Saal said. “Breast cancer similarly takes decades. We are talking about fetal exposures leading to midlife cancers, and the chemical doing that is diethylstilbestrol, DES, a sister chemical to BPA.”
Heather Patisaul is a biology professor at North Carolina State University, where she specializes in neuroendocrinology and endocrine disruption research. In American Scientist, Patisual described the “sobering possibility” that endocrine disruptors might have the same transgenerational effects described by vom Saal.
Patisaul reviewed mouse studies which suggest that granddaughters of women prescribed DES to prevent miscarriage will be affected by the endocrine-disrupting drugs prescribed to their grandmothers.
“For these girls,” Patisaul wrote, “their exposure occurred while they were only germ cells in their mothers’ developing ovaries, within the wombs of their grandmothers.”
In a phone interview, Patisaul said the data is not yet conclusive, but “DES granddaughters” are being monitored by physicians and researchers looking at the transgenerational effects of endocrine disruptors.
I also asked Patisaul about the validity of rodent research in predicting outcomes in humans.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” she said. “But for me, repeatability is important. If this is a phenomenon that we keep seeing at different endpoints over and over again in different labs, I start to have more confidence that that this is a real effect. In BPA, that seems to be the case. We have looked at endocrine systems, other people have looked at the prostate, mammary glands, and cardiovascular function. They all see similar types of effects.”
Vom Saal and Patisaul are not outliers. Laura Vandenberg, a fellow at Tufts who is an expert witness for the defense in the Eastman lawsuit has reached similar conclusions. As has Ana Soto, the Tufts professor Vandenberg works with. Carlos Sonnenschein, a research M.D./Ph.D. at Tufts medical school, has published research that links BPA to disease. George Bittner, the University of Texas professor whose private labs are being sued by Eastman, is a neurobiologist in the same camp.
A Google search will turn up studies done at universities or medical schools, papers published in peer-reviewed journals, and articles in mainstream news outlets from The Washington Post to The Guardian that make a compelling argument that BPA is a health risk, particularly for fetuses, children, and women who have not reached reproductive maturity.
“We don’t even know all its uses,” said vom Saal.
His research for example has found that BPA used to provide the smooth finish for credit card and ATM receipt paper can result in exposure 250 to 1,000 times higher than what is found in food or liquid sources.
From Tobacco to Plastic
Japanese manufacturers agreed to broad voluntary bans of BPA 10 years ago. The Canadian government designated BPA a toxic substance in 2012. The always timid FDA ended the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups in the U.S. in 2012.
So how does a product as toxic as BPA remain on the U.S. market, where 10 million pounds will be produced this year?
Vom Saal suggested that the answer can be traced back to the tobacco industry’s use of compromised scientists and well-financed advocacy to counter scientific proof that tobacco is carcinogenic.
|Tobacco companies used front groups like the Tobacco Institute to manufacture and promote “industry science.” After the Tobacco Institute was put out of business in 1998, many of its scientists, lobbyists, and consultants made a seamless transition from tobacco to plastic.|
“They are using the same groups that left tobacco when the top product-production group ceased to be of any help to them,” vom Saal said. “It’s the same crew and the same strategy.”
The “top product-production group” was the Tobacco Institute.
Before the Clinton administration and a group of state attorneys general prevailed in separate racketeering suits filed against the industry, tobacco companies used front groups like the Tobacco Institute to manufacture and promote “industry science.”
When the Tobacco Institute was put out of business by a Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, many of its scientists, lobbyists, and consultants made a seamless transition from tobacco to plastic.
There is, in fact, a long list of for-profit consulting firms, think tanks, and non-profit advocacy groups that once served as an industry front for tobacco and are now defending BPA.
One particularly agile consulting operation, The Weinberg Group, got its start in tobacco advocacy. In the late 1980s, Weinberg founder Myron Weinberg helped coordinate and run Philip Morris Tobacco’s “Whitecoat Project.”
The “whitecoats” were Ph.D.s hired by Philip Morris to undermine scientific findings about the dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke. The goal of the project, according to a 1988 memo, was to “Reverse scientific and popular misconception that ETS is harmful.” ETS refers to secondhand “environmental tobacco smoke.”
By 2007, the Weinberg Group had moved from tobacco to plastic.
Weinberg’s 30-page “State of the Science and Policy for Endocrine Disruption”—written and edited in 2007 by two consultants with no background in science—employs the same tactics professional apologists used to defend tobacco until the federal courts put them out of business.
The title is oddly similar to the World Health Organization’s “State of the Science for Endocrine Disruptors,” which was published in 2002. By echoing the title of a survey of scientific research, the Weinberg document seeks to co-opt the legitimacy of the WHO paper. The Weinberg authors cherry-pick findings and quotes from scientific papers to arrive at the conclusion that it is too early to come to a conclusion. They use standard industry euphemisms such as “endocrine active substance” to avoid the unpleasant conclusion that “endocrine disruptors” disrupt human biological functions. And they argue there is “no scientific rationale for proposing to classify or label substances as endocrine disruptors because the existing regulatory systems are adequate to manage any potential risks.”
An acknowledgement at the end of the Weinberg Report reads: “Support for this paper was provided by the American Chemistry Council.” The council is a huge trade association that defends the plastics industry and describes BPA as “one of the most thoroughly tested chemicals used today (with) a safety track record of 50 years.”
Another particularly effective industry advocate is the Heartland Institute. Like the Weinberg Group, Heartland was once a tobacco-funded front operation using industry-underwritten science to make the case that secondhand smoke was not creating a public health problem.
Although Heartland is most widely known for the use of junk science to challenge scientific proof that human activity is causing climate change, and unsurprisingly is the recipient of at least $200,000 from the Koch brothers, it is also engaged in a campaign to challenge scientific conclusions about health risks linked to BPA.
Not as widely known as the Heartland Institute, the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology & Pharmacology (ISRTP) is another industry group that has managed the transition from tobacco to plastic. Twenty years ago, you could turn to ISRTP’s “peer-reviewed” trade journal to find articles challenging scientific findings that secondhand smoke is a carcinogen.
Today the ISRTP sponsors conferences that bring together critics of research that has found that BPA and other endocrine disruptors cause adverse health effects in humans.
ISRTP can’t hide its tobacco antecedents. Its journal is published by Gio Gori, once a respected researcher at the National Cancer Institute who followed the money to Brown & Williamson Tobacco, where between 1986-1992 he earned more than a half-million dollars.
ISRTP’s financial backers have included the American Chemistry Council, Dow AgroSciences, R.J. Reynolds and the Indspec Chemical Corp.
Behind all these trade groups is the American Chemistry Council, which in 2002 merged with the American Plastics Council and does for BPA what the Tobacco Institute did for tobacco, funding studies and educating the public about its products.
The 150-member trade association’s books are closed, so it’s impossible to determine how much of its $100 million annual budget it spends countering the science on BPA. But its subsidiary, Polycarbonate BPA Global Group, disseminates “scientific studies” and curates websites filled with “scientific information.” A “Better Living with Plastics” campaign works very hard to look like an independent source of consumer information, even if its PlasticsInfo.com site was registered by the American Chemistry Council in 2002.
“This is cookie-cutter science,” Stanton Glantz said in a telephone interview. Glantz is the co-author of The Cigarette Papers and currently directs the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.
“A lot of these guys are worn out and were discredited in tobacco, so they move on to other areas. The court order prohibits them from contesting evidence that nicotine is addictive and that secondhand smoke causes cancer, so there’s less of a market for what they do,” Glantz said.
Glantz described scientists who moved from tobacco to BPA as “people who made their careers over many years saying what their clients wanted them to say, often without disclosing that connection.”
“No scientists take these guys seriously,” Glantz said, “although I guess when they stand up in court they are still scientists.”
As it turns out, an American Chemistry Council BPA scientist with a background in tobacco is standing up in federal court for Eastman Chemical.
Christopher J. Borgert is an expert witness in the civil suit Eastman filed against the two Austin labs that tested its resins and detected estrogenic activity.
With his wife, he runs Applied Pharmacology and Toxicology, an environmental consulting firm in Gainesville, Florida.
Borgert testified that his biggest research grant was $899,998 from the American Chemistry Council to study the effects of environmental chemicals on fish, alligators and mussels in Florida’s Ocklawaha River Basin.
He is also the co-author of “A Critique of the European Commission Document, ‘State of the Art Assessment of Endocrine Disrupters’”—which challenges an E.U. commission’s conclusions about endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
In 2008, Borgert turned up at what appeared to be a tobacco apologists’ reunion at an ISRTP conference where scientists and consultants presented their findings on endocrine disruptors. Among the speakers were Gio Gori, Weinberg’s James Lamb, and Borgert.
Borgert didn’t mention Philip Morris in his Eastman lawsuit deposition. Nor will you find it on his current CV. To find what is elided from his professional history, I had to go to the Tobacco Legacy Documents—a document archive tobacco companies and the Tobacco Institute were compelled to make public by lawsuits filed in the 1990s.
In the legacy documents Borgert is listed as a “confidential consultant” for Philip Morris. According to the tobacco documents, in the 1990s Borgert wrote confidential reports for Philip Morris trial attorneys contending with EPA regulation of secondhand smoke.
I called Borgert’s Gainesville office and left a phone message inquiring about his background in tobacco. He never returned my call. When I tried to speak to him in court in Austin, he was hustled away by one of Eastman’s attorneys.
Why do millions of Americans continue to consume artificial estrogen leached from plastic bottles and food containers? There are several reasons.
BPA generates an estimated $10 billion a year in profits. The same money that pays for what Stan Glantz describes as “junk science” also pays lobbyists and distorts the regulatory process by funding industry studies submitted to the FDA (which are often sealed based on the familiar claim that they contain proprietary information).
Plastic bottles and containers are durable, light and convenient.
The science of endocrine disruption is complex and difficult to explain.
And the plastics industry has time on its side.
Diseases caused by endocrine disruptors develop slowly.
A woman is exposed to BPA at an early age, perhaps in utero.
She doesn’t get breast cancer until she’s 40.
Lou Dubose is the editor of The Washington Spectator.