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Science of problems, science of solutions or both? A case example of bisphenol A
  1. Joel A Tickner
  1. Correspondence to Dr Joel A Tickner, Department of Community Health and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Lowell, 3 Solomont Way, Lowell, MA 01854, USA; joel_tickner{at}

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In October 2009, the US National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences announced 30 million dollars of funding for research on the hormone disrupting effects of bisphenol a (BPA).1 BPA is a building block of polycarbonate plastic and a widely used raw material for resins and coatings. The research focuses on the contribution of low-dose exposures of BPA to obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, asthma, cardiovascular disease and various cancers. This research represents a critical contribution to our scientific understanding of endocrine disrupting chemicals; however not a single dollar was committed to studying safer alternatives to BPA.

BPA exemplifies the limits of our current reactive, chemical-by-chemical approach to chemical assessment and management. Under this framework, chemicals are generally assumed safe and action is not warranted until ‘sound science’ can adequately characterise the causes and mechanisms of effects on ecosystems or human health. As a result, decision making becomes mired in debates over mechanisms and relevance of animal studies. There is an implicit incentive—for firms and scientists alike—to ‘manufacture’ uncertainty to prolong regulatory debates, given the burdens placed on government to act.2 This framework is inefficient and inadequate to protect public health. A more productive approach would focus on the search for safer alternatives to chemicals that have raised plausible health concerns.

BPA—science controversies

BPA was recognised to have estrogenic properties in the late 1930s, yet was approved for food contact uses more than 40 years ago. Only after studies showing low-dose impacts of BPA in laboratory animals were published in the late 1990s did concerns about the chemical increase significantly. Particular concern has been raised for applications that may expose children and the developing fetus.

Research and controversy regarding BPA toxicity have increased significantly. A search for ‘bisphenol a’ in an article title in the Medline database found 1089 published articles since January …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Patient consent Obtained.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.