BPA: House tries to put feds on the spot

Last week (July 30), the House passed legislation to revamp food safety regulations. Known as HR 2749, this Food Safety Enhancement Act would force a number of changes – including reanalysis of the safety of bisphenol A. In animal studies, low-dose concentrations of this BPA – an estrogen-mimicking ingredient of many food-contact materials – has been linked with a host of adverse effects, including behavioral, reproductive and heart abnormalities.

Although the Food and Drug Administration reviewed data on the compound and judged BPA fit for human consumption, at least in small doses, Rep. Ed Markey (Dem.-Mass.) isn’t convinced. In fact, he authored a bill earlier this year asking for a ban on BPA’s use in food and beverage containers. And as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight of FDA, he has been in a position to ask the agency to revisit the issue of BPA safety. 

The new legislation would give the secretary of Health and Human Services until New Year’s to determine that BPA’s current uses in food-contact materials pose “no harm” – especially to infants, children and pregnant women. If existing data are too limited to let FDA make such an assessment, the bill instructs the HHS secretary to tell Congress what regulations FDA will undertake to ensure public safety. Possible action, the bill says, could include banning or modifying any of the approved uses of BPA in food-contact products or issuing warnings to the public about what consumers can do to avoid undue risks until these products are banned or deemed safe.
It’s strong language, to be sure. It’s also early days in this legislation. Sponsors of the House bill are all democrats. A similar bill hasn’t passed the Senate, much less been reconciled with the House legislation. As congressional negotiations proceed, the BPA language could be removed from the bill or altered – such as removing Markey’s recommended year-end deadline.

But the bill does suggest that at least some members of Congress may be developing a keen interest in the scientific studies challenging the safety of a widely used and increasingly controversial industrial chemical.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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