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Precautionary Principle - Applications
Number 185
Plastics, Precaution and Politics
August 2009

I. Medical Group calls for Reducing use of BPA
by Liz Szabo

II. Plastic Peril? Is "Better Safe than Sorry" Reason Enough for Law?
by Jon Hamilton

III. California Panel Decides Against Requiring Warning Labels for Products Containing Bisphenol A.
by Amy Littlefield

IV. Toxicologists Say Media Overstate Risks
 

V. Is Obama's Climate-Change Plan getting Sabotaged from Within?
by Bill Lambrecht


I. Medical Group calls for Reducing use of BPA
by Liz Szabo

USA Today, June 11, 2009

An Endocrine Society report says that it's important for people to take a "precautionary approach" by reducing their exposures.

Hormone-like chemicals in plastics, pesticides and other products pose "significant concern for public health," possibly causing infertility, cancer and malformations, a medical society announced Wednesday.

There is strong evidence that chemicals that interfere with the hormone system can cause serious health problems, according to a scientific report from the Endocrine Society, now meeting in Washington, D.C. Although scientists still have many questions about the chemicals, the report says that it's important for people to take a "precautionary approach" by reducing their exposures.

Hormone-disrupting chemicals include bisphenol A, or BPA, often used in plastic baby bottles and the linings of metal cans.

The new report is the latest in a growing number of statements from scientific groups warning of potential harm. Although the Food and Drug Administration says BPA is safe, Canada last year declared the chemical to be toxic. The USA's National Toxicology Program last year also expressed "some concern" over BPA's effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in children before and after birth. In 2007, a group of 38 leading researchers published a statement noting serious risks from BPA.

The Endocrine Society decided to release the scientific statement — the first it has ever issued — because these chemicals "affect everyone," says society president Robert Carey. The report notes that 93% of Americans tested have been exposed to BPA.

Carey says the society wants to provide accurate information to lawmakers and regulators. Beyond summing up the latest science, the report also catalogues what doctors don't yet know and lists the sort of research that still needs to be done.

The report notes that hormone-disrupting chemicals behave differently than other toxins. For most toxins, the danger is in the dose, with larger doses posing more risk than small ones, says Andrea Gore, an author of the new statement from the University of Texas at Austin.

Because the body is exquisitely sensitive to hormones, Gore says, even small doses can cause serious problems, especially if babies are exposed during critical development windows, such as before birth. For hormones, the timing of exposure is often far more critical than the amount.

Disturbingly, the damage from hormone-disrupting chemicals can sometimes be passed on to future generations, Gore says.

Scientists at the annual meeting presented new studies on BPA, as well, including one linking the chemical to abnormal heart rhythms in rats and mice. That finding supports a September study in The Journal of the American Medical Association linked BPA to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes in humans.

Another new study found that people are likely exposed to greater doses of BPA than are considered safe by the FDA. And a third study, showing that BPA causes permanent changes in the DNA of mice, helps doctors understand how this damage is passed on to offspring, says author Hugh Taylor of Yale University School of Medicine. Taylor says his small study supports research showing that prenatal exposure to BPA could permanently change the way the body responds to estrogen.

An industry group, the American Chemistry Council, said in a statement that it agrees scientists need to do more research. But the council notes that a group called the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry found there have been no "conclusive" studies proving that the chemicals cause disease.

But Taylor says there is reason for pregnant women to be cautious, even if much of the research so far is in animals.

"You can never do these studies in women," Taylor says. "You can't intentionally give someone high doses, especially in pregnancy."

Taylor says that the small number of human studies, including one linking high BPA levels to miscarriages, suggest that humans react the same way to BPA as animals.

"I don't think anybody is saying this is the most toxic stuff known to man," Taylor says. "But are we doing something that could affect our children into the next generation?"



II. Plastic Peril? Is "Better Safe than Sorry" Reason Enough for Law?
by Jon Hamilton

NPR Morning Edition, April 15, 2009

A federal proposal to restrict a plastic additive called bisphenol A (BPA) is focusing attention on a guiding concept known as the "precautionary principle."

The proposal would ban BPA from food and beverage containers. Proponents say the precautionary principle requires such a ban because high doses of BPA can cause reproductive abnormalities and cancer in animals.

But whether you agree with that stance depends on how you define the precautionary principle. It's not written into federal law, and it turns out that people have widely differing views on what it is, and how it should be applied.

BPA In The Body

BPA is used to create polycarbonate plastic products that are clear and durable. It's also used in resins that coat the inside of many food and beverage cans.

In the body, BPA can act like a weak form of estrogen. And studies show that BPA is used so widely that most people have detectable levels.

Scientists don't know whether these low levels of BPA pose a health risk. So arguments about the proposed ban tend to involve discussions of precaution.

The precautionary principle dates back to at least the 1930s, says Jonathan Wiener, a professor of law, environmental policy and public policy at Duke University. He says there are at least three basic forms of the principle, though one scholar found 19 variations.

Weaker versions of the principle say it's OK to take precautions against a threat to health or the environment even if it's not clear that the threat has caused any harm. Stronger versions say it's essential to take precautionary action.

Extreme Interpretations

And then there's the variation that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) used last month when she introduced her bill to restrict BPA.

"If you do not know for certain the chemical is benign, it should not be used," Feinstein said.

But that standard has never been part of the precautionary principle because it couldn't be met, says Dr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, an advocacy group that has warned regulators about the potential risks from BPA.

"It's almost impossible to prove that something will never happen," Schettler says. You simply can't prove that a chemical will never hurt anyone.

Even though Schettler disagrees with Feinstein's take on the precautionary principle, he strongly supports her effort to remove BPA from food and drink containers.

Precaution Says To Seek Out Alternatives

Schettler says he backs a more mainstream version of the precautionary principle. It states: "When there are credible threats of harm from some proposed activity, precautionary action should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully understood."

The competing versions of the principle can be confusing, Schettler says. And he says that confusion has been made a lot worse by people who don't want regulators or the government to use any version.

"They say the precautionary principle requires you to ban something if you have the slightest glimmer that it might cause harm," Schettler says. "That is not what it does. It does ask you to look carefully, whether there are alternatives, and then look at the range of activities available to you."

Schettler notes that products like baby bottles are already being made without BPA.

"In my view, we've gathered enough evidence to say that we know enough to act," he says.

Europe And U.S. Treat Precaution Differently

The European Union, though, hasn't acted against BPA even though it has a law requiring it to follow the precautionary principle.

Wiener says that's a reminder that Europe's formal endorsement of the principle doesn't mean Europe is always more precautionary than the United States.

"On the contrary, what we find is that there is a complex pattern of particular precautions applied to particular risks on each side of the Atlantic," he says.

Wiener says the European Union is usually more cautious about chemicals than the United States.

Europe Requires Companies To Register Chemicals

In 2006, the EU passed a tough law requiring companies to register the chemicals they use, gather safety information, and switch to safer alternatives when possible.

But Wiener says it was the U.S. that proved more cautious when mad cow disease started killing people in Europe a few years ago.

The United States not only halted beef imports from affected countries, it banned blood donations from anyone who had spent much time in Europe.

That was "a highly precautionary strategy given that the evidence of transmission through blood transfusions was very preliminary and the countervailing risk of not having enough blood in hospital trauma centers was quite real," Wiener says.

Wiener says the United States also maintains tougher standards for certain types of air pollution, and acted sooner to get rid of chemicals that damage the Earth's ozone layer.

Taking Personal Precautions

Linda Birnbaum, who directs the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, has spent years pondering the precautionary principle.

She describes it in subjective terms: "The precautionary principle says that you act in the presence of concerning information."

In other words, Birnbaum says she finds the information about BPA "somewhat concerning," especially studies showing that the chemical tends to leach out of plastic that's been heated.

"So I stopped microwaving in plastic many years ago," she says, "not because I was convinced it was going to cause harm, but because it just wasn't a necessity."



III. California Panel Decides Against Requiring Warning Labels for Products Containing Bisphenol A.
by Amy Littlefield

Although the panel may not have found the scientific evidence strong enough to warn the public, the panel's chairwoman said she abides by the "precautionary principle."

"I think if I had a baby I probably would try to use glass," Burk said.

The Los Angeles Times
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-bpa18-2009jul18,0,2769564.story
July 18, 2009

A state panel will not require warning labels on metal cans, plastic bottles and other products that contain bisphenol A, despite more than 200 studies that have linked the chemical to cancer and reproductive problems.

Wednesday's unanimous decision may speak to the limitations of the state Environmental Protection Agency's Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee. Dorothy Burk, chairwoman of the committee, acknowledged its reach is limited.

"By law we can only look at prenatal exposure, so that's why we struggle so long," she said. "We may be thinking there is something here but we just don't have enough evidence to say it clearly causes this."

Critics note the panel also failed to identify secondhand smoke as a reproductive toxin until 2006, and has voted to warn the public against only one chemical in the last three years.

"This isn't exactly a committee that's on the cutting edge of public health decisions in California," said Gretchen Lee Salter, policy manager at the Breast Cancer Fund.

The seven-member panel of scientists and physicians provide one venue through which products are required to display a warning label as part of Proposition 65.

Under the proposition, which was approved by voters in 1986, chemicals can be added to the state's list of substances known to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity if an "authoritative body" establishes such a link.

Following the panel's decision, the Natural Resources Defense Council presented a petition demanding that BPA be listed because a study by the National Toxicology Program -- a state-recognized authoritative body -- had found "some concern" about the chemical's impact on the brains, behaviors, and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children.

Meanwhile, some retailers have pulled products containing the chemical and many consumers have stopped buying plastic baby bottles.

The state Senate voted in June to ban BPA in food and drink containers for children under the age of 3.

The Assembly is expected to vote on the ban later this summer.

Although the panel may not have found the scientific evidence strong enough to warn the public, the panel's chairwoman said she abides by the "precautionary principle."

"I think if I had a baby I probably would try to use glass," Burk said.

Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times



IV. Toxicologists Say Media Overstate Risks
 

Sustainable Business, May 22, 2009

69% say chemicals do not need to be regulated according to the precautionary principle

From baby bottles to shower curtains, iPods to lipstick, and “new car smell” to non-stick frying pans, thousands of news stories have warned the American public about the hidden dangers of toxic chemicals in everyday items. But a new survey of scientists specializing in toxicology calls into question the risks associated with many of these chemicals as they are routinely depicted in the media.

Majorities of toxicologists rate most government agencies as accurately portraying chemical risks, but they rate leading environmental activist groups as overstating risks, according to the survey by George Mason University researchers.

According to survey director Dr. Robert Lichter, "This survey suggests that the public doesn't get a full and balanced picture of chemical risk."

Society of Toxicology (SOT) Vice-President Dr. Michael Holsapple adds, "Ultimately, the media and scientists share the responsibility for how chemical risks are portrayed to the public."

When asked to agree or disagree with statements about chemical safety and regulation:
  • 26% believe cosmetics pose a significant health risk
  • 33% believe food additives pose a significant health risk
  • 55% believe pesticides pose a significant health risk
  • 53% believe chemicals cause endocrine disruption
  • Only 10% believe organic or “natural” products are inherently safer
  • Only 6% believe that any exposure to a harmful chemical is unacceptable
  • 69% say chemicals do not need to be regulated according to the precautionary principle
  • Only 23% say the U.S. regulatory system is inferior to Europe’s
  • 54% say U.S. regulators are not doing a good job explaining chemical risks
Despite recent controversies in the news over the safety of commonly used chemicals, few toxicologists believe they pose a high health risk, according to the survey.
  • 3% see Teflon as having a high degree of risk
  • 3% see genetically modified organisms as high risk
  • 9% see Bisphenol A, a component of many plastics, as high risk
  • 11% see phthalates, which make vinyl flexible, as high risk
  • 12% see high fructose corn syrup, used in soft drinks, as high risk
By comparison, 26% rate sunlight as posing a high health risk, as do 29% for aflatoxin, a naturally-occurring fungus found in peanut butter, and 35% for mercury. Rate How Organizations Portray Risks Toxicologists overwhelmingly say that environmental activist groups overstate the health risks of chemicals. But they also say industry groups underplay the risks.
  • 96% say Greenpeace overstates the health risks of chemicals
  • 80% say the Environmental Defense Fund overstates chemical risks
  • 79% say the Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Center for Science in the Public Interest overstate the risks
  • 57% say the American Chemistry Council understates chemical risks
  • 60% say the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) understates chemical risks
In contrast, majorities say that most U.S. governmental agencies accurately portray risk, with only the EPA (40%) and the CPSC (47%) falling below a majority Rate the Media Coverage Toxicologists almost unanimously believe the media does a poor job covering basic scientific concepts and explaining risk.
  • 90% say media coverage of risk lacks balance and diversity
  • 97% say the media doesn’t distinguish good studies from bad studies
  • 96% say the media doesn’t distinguish correlation from causation
  • 96% say the media doesn’t explain that “the dose makes the poison.”Almost three out of four toxicologists believe the news media pays too much attention to individual studies as opposed to the overall evidence (74%), and to individual scientists as opposed to the broader community (73%)
  • Over two out of three toxicologists (68%) believe the news media pays too much attention to studies put out by environmental groups, compared to only 27% and 18% who see too much media attention to studies by government and private sector scientists, respectively
In a stunning finding, WebMD and Wikipedia are seen as more reliable than traditional news sources for information about chemical risks.
  • 56% say WebMD accurately portrays chemical risks
  • 45% say Wikipedia accurately portrays chemical risks
  • By contrast, no more than 15% say that leading national newspapers, news magazines, and television networks accurately portray chemical risks
  • Over 80% say that leading national newspapers, news magazines, and television networks overstate chemical risks

This survey of 937 members of the Society of Toxicology (SOT) was administered online from Jan 27 to March 2 by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) and Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University.

Website: stats.org/stories/2009/are_chemicals_killing_us.html

© 2009 Sustainable Business.com. All Rights Reserved.



V. Is Obama's Climate-Change Plan getting Sabotaged from Within?
by Bill Lambrecht

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 12, 2009

OMB observes that the EPA's conclusion that human-induced climate change poses serious risks to public health "rests heavily on the precautionary principle, but the amount of acknowledged lack of understanding about basic facts surrounding green house gases seems to stretch the precautionary principle to providing for regulation in the face of unprecedented uncertainty."

UPDATED WASHINGTON — It looks that way, and environmentalists are worried after seeing today what White House Office of Management and Budget analysts are writing internally about the Environmental Protection Agency's proposals.

Some of the OMB remarks that can be found at Regulations.gov sound a lot like what the EPA's fiercest critics are saying on Capitol Hill.

For instance, a White House budget analyst writes that regulating carbon dioxide under the Clear Air Act "is likely to have serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the U.S. economy, including small businesses and small communities."

In another section, OMB observes that the EPA's conclusion that human-induced climate change poses serious risks to public health "rests heavily on the precautionary principle, but the amount of acknowledged lack of understanding about basic facts surrounding green house gases seems to stretch the precautionary principle to providing for regulation in the face of unprecedented uncertainty."

The analyst notes that the EPA doesn't dwell much on how damages from climate change would be lessened by adaptation and whether there might be positive effects from a warming planet.

For instance, people might move from Arizona to Minnesota to escape the heat — the type of migration that the EPA doesn't consider in forecasting problems. And Alaska, OMB writes, could benefit from warmer winters both for health and economic reasons.

This afternoon, OMB director Peter Orzag said in a statement that it was wrong to conclude from the written comments that his agency opposes the EPA's endangerment finding with regard to carbon dioxide.

Rather, he said, they reflect comments from various agencies and "do not necessarily represent the views of either OMB or the administration."

Orzag repeated something he had written earlier - that EPA’s proposed finding "is carefully rooted in both law and science."

It may indeed have been just an exercise. Nonetheless, environmental advocates worried that the comments from within the administration would one day be used against them in the already uphill drive for meaningful climate-change legislation.

And Clean Air Watch’s Frank O’Donnell referred to the OMB handiwork as "an appalling document which reads like something that could have been written by (Oklahoma Sen.) Jim Inhofe or (Texas Rep. Joe Barton)," both Republicans.

"It is very clear from this that the Obama administration contains people who are trying to sabotage the administration's climate strategy. It shows that there are a lot of knives within the bowels of the bureacracy," O’Donnell said in an email.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's David Doniger this evening called the document "the staff work of someone in the OMB boiler room who didn't get the memo that the old administration had come to an end … The author's advice and recommendations parrot those offered by industry groups and echoed by the Bush administration. But they were not followed by OMB current managers …"

Companies worried about new regulations were, needless to say, thrilled. Scott Segal, of Bracewell Giuliani, a DC lobbying firm that has many such clients, observed this afternoon that the newly released documents are an example of the "quality control" for which OMB is known.

The OMB response, Segal said, "demonstrates that the Agency may have cherry-picked public health literature and did no original research on the topic. Further, the OMB notes that the type of indirect health impact methodology used by EPA could substantially expand EPA regulatory authority in ways that may not have been contemplated when Congress wrote the applicable environmental statutes."

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