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March 3, 2011 Volume 32, No. 22

MU conference will explore barriers to stronger chemical safety laws

vom Saal

CHANGE AGENT Fred vom Saal, Curators Professor of Biological Sciences, will bring a group of experts to MU to discuss barriers to federal regulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Vom Saal, the world's foremost authority on plastics additive Bisphenol A , was awarded a $20,000 Mizzou Advantage for the conference, which will be held in September. Rob Hill photo


Vom Saal: Current system uses ‘1950s’ science

In 1991, a group of scientists gathered at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wis., to discuss evidence that synthetic chemicals unleashed on the environment had significantly altered the embryonic development of fish and wildlife.

At the end of the three-day workshop, the scientists — experts in developmental and wildlife biology, endocrinology, toxicology, immunology and pharmacology — issued a warning: so-called endocrine disruptors also threatened a “large scale dysfunction” of human embryonic and intellectual development.

One of the 21 signatories to the “Wingspread Consensus Statement” was an unknown developmental biologist at the University of Missouri named Frederick vom Saal. Today, vom Saal is the world’s foremost expert on Bisphenol A, a ubiquitious compound — and a known endocrine disruptor — used to make plastic.

Since vom Saal sounded the first warnings about BPA in 1997, hundreds of studies have linked exposure to the chemical to increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and reproductive disorders. A favorite of environmental reporters, vom Saal has been quoted countless times, appeared on dozens of television broadcasts and testified before legislative bodies across the country. His groundbreaking work led to the decision in seven states to limit or ban the sale of BPA-containing products and to a recent declaration by the government of Canada that BPA is toxic to human health and the environment.

Last month, vom Saal was awarded a $20,000 Mizzou Advantage grant to mark the 20th anniversary of the Wingspread consensus by bringing together another group of experts, this time on the MU campus. The conference, scheduled for September 2011, will explore the question of why, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that many synthetic chemicals are hazardous to human health, government regulators have been slow to respond.

Recently, Mizzou Weekly talked with vom Saal about the conference and the need for reform of the chemical regulatory system in the United States.

Mizzou Weekly: What’s the connection between the Wingspread workshop in 1991 and the MU conference?

Frederick vom Saal: The premise at the original meeting was this new concept of chemicals that act like hormones, like estrogen. If you had told that group in 1991 that 20 years later there would be thousands of publications and legislation being introduced all over the world about this, and that the regulatory system was completely unresponsive, nobody would have believed it.

The meeting at Mizzou will bring in a group of people focused on the laws governing the decision-making process at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies. What we’re trying to do is create an agenda that will look out over the next decade and say, ‘What are the steps that need to be taken to arrive at a point where the regulatory system is actually using the science.’ At the same time, we need to be working on how to dismantle the current system, otherwise no matter how much information comes out, there’s still going to be this war.

MW: What’s wrong with the current system?

FVS: We have a set of testing procedures that reflect the state of the science in 1950. They were approved decades ago. The agencies rely on commercial labs that are incapable of doing 21st century science —  they don’t have the appropriate personnel to do it.

To give an example, the EPA has spent $100 million since 1996 on commercial labs trying to develop new assays. In April, one of the major labs was asked to run a type of assay that is run in thousands of labs around the world, a procedure called radioimmunoassay. The head of the lab said, ‘We tried to run this and the performance standard is 4 percent variation from one assay to another and we got 25 and 35 percent variability.’ In other words, complete garbage.

The perversion is that the government and these labs say that any experiment they do is, by definition, valid, even though they are producing data that is completely different than anything anyone else has seen. One hundred percent of those studies don’t find any effects of Bisphenol A, at any dose, and yet they are declared valid.

MW: You’ve criticized regulators for being beholden to the chemical industry. Do you have an example of that influence?

FVS: In 2008, the FDA released a document in which it declared BPA completely safe. The agency’s own science review board stomped on them — said the report was appalling, unscientific, completely unacceptable and needs to be thrown out.

Reporters found correspondence from the FDA asking the American Chemistry Council to provide sections that can be put in the report that assures the public that BPA is safe. A new administration came in, and in January 2010 the FDA announced it was concerned about the chemical — the first time a regulatory agency actually reversed it’s position; the FDA is not known for doing that — but that they also said they had no authority to regulate BPA.

MW: Why not?

FVS: This is why we need reform. When the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed [in 1976], it grandfathered in more than 60,000 chemicals, one of them being BPA. Those 60,000 are not regulated. They are generally regarded as safe under the law.

MW: What does that mean?

FVS: What risk do you want when your baby drinks out of a baby bottle? That risk should be zero — there should be no risk.

But chemicals are approved as safe in the U.S. in the absence of information. There is no safety testing. After a product is on the market and everybody is exposed to it and you find out it’s associated with harm, you have to essentially prove it’s killing people before anything is done.

MW: I think many people would be surprised to hear that.

FVS: It’s not by accident. People very cleverly set up a system that wouldn’t work. If you’re in one of those businesses making millions of dollars, you don’t want a strong regulatory system.

Virtually every single former commissioner of the FDA has said our food safety system is broken beyond repair; that it’s scattered across so many different agencies that don’t communicate with each other, there is no coordination or rationale for the separation of authority.

MW: Given the problems, how do explain the response to the research on BPA?

FVS: BPA has become the bellweather showing the severe cracks in the system. That’s the purpose of this meeting in September.

We know of 1,000 chemicals with endocrine-disrupting activity. The National Institutes of Health have $30 million invested in BPA research. The regulatory system will have to accept this data. Once they do, the flood gates will open, because they will have to admit they got it wrong.