Kansas City's The Pitch newspaper has a very interesting story about the bisphenol A controversy. The story is told primarily from the perspective of University of Missouri Professor Frederick vom Saal and his team, although it includes reaction from a variety of industry sources. Vom Saal is the researcher who managed to keep a spotlight on BPA safety for the past decade. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his efforts are responsible for the what we called "the beginning of the end for polycarbonate bottles that contain bisphenol-A in North America" in our April 21 issue. Here's an excerpt from The Pitch's story:
Vom Saal is a controversial figure in his area of expertise — at least where the manufacturers of bisphenol A are concerned. His willingness to speak frankly about his findings is alarming to the top five makers of bisphenol A: Dow Chemical, Bayer Material Science, Sunoco Chemicals, SABIC Innovative Plastics and Hexion Specialty Chemicals. More than 6 billion pounds of bisphenol A are produced every year. "If I were to say to you, 'Oh, here's a pack of birth control pills. I'm going to extract out the hormone and make plastic out of them,' you'd think I was crazy," vom Saal says. "And indeed, the idea that you're using sex hormones to make plastic is just totally insane." For a decade, vom Saal has seen the chemical industry distort his research and government regulators ignore it. But after years of quietly publishing studies in scientific journals and presenting papers at toxicological conventions, vom Saal is starting to be heard. Since the first study of bisphenol A came out of vom Saal's lab in 1997, he has been interviewed about the chemical for PBS' Frontline series and by ABC's 20/20. For Fox News, he has measured the amounts of bisphenol A that leach out of plastic baby bottles, and he has even been quoted in subculture-celebrating Vice magazine regarding the Texas-sized island of discarded plastic floating in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. Recently, he has flown around the country to testify in front of state legislators writing measures against the use of bisphenol A.The story details some serious allegations against the chemical industry. For example, it describes a 1997 meeting with Dow Chemical Co.'s John Waechter, who offered to replicate vom Saal's research in a larger, industry-funded study.
Vom Saal says he'll never forget Waechter's words: "Can we arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome where you withhold publishing this paper until authorized to do so by the Chemical Manufacturers Association?" The scientists felt they were being offered a bribe. Mark Walton, the lead spokesman for Dow Chemical, has been asked about Waechter's visit by media outlets before — Frontline, specifically. He tells The Pitch that what felt to the scientists like bribery was "simply an enormous misunderstanding between what Dr. Waechter attempted to communicate and what was heard by Dr. vom Saal. And there was no intent or effort in any way, shape or form to do anything that would cause Dr. vom Saal to do anything other than to publish science that was accurate." Vom Saal says that he told Waechter, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with his offer. It was the MU scientists' first glimpse of industry backlash.Some of the mistakes in the story jumped out as I read them. For example, trying to make a connection between vom Saal's research and the American Plastics Council's "Take another look at Plastic" ad campaign was a ridiculous stretch. And calling the Society of the Plastics Industry a subsidiary of American Chemistry Council is a sloppy mistake. Still, this is an interesting story, worth reading for anyone involved in BPA- or polycarbonate-related issues. Vom Saal seems destined to be an individual who will make a major impact on the future of the plastics industry. It's obvious from his comments that his interactions with industry people to date has not impressed him. "Honesty in industry is not a requirement," vom Saal said. "As a matter of fact, the willingness to be dishonest seems to be the criterion for these people being hired and representing the chemical industry. We're playing on a very uneven playing field when we talk to them."