The regulation of Bisphenol-A by European authorities is a victory for health in the EU
The food safety agency has recognized that current exposure to this endocrine disruptor creates a high health risk, as this and other substances have been linked to diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer
Most common diseases whose prevalence is increasing, such as obesity, diabetes, autism, thyroid function disorders, fertility problems and cancer, are due to a gene-environment interaction. We cannot change our genes, but we can improve the environment, make it healthier, and thus reduce the probability of suffering from these diseases.
No one doubts that chemistry has provided us with great advances that have improved and continue to improve our lives, but the toll we pay is the deleterious effect of pollution on human health and the environment. It seems logical that, as those affected, we should demand that our toll be minimal.
Compounds called endocrine disruptors are an important part of the chemical pollution in our everyday environment. They are called endocrine disruptors because they act by altering the action of our hormones, such as insulin or thyroxine released by the thyroid gland. They do this subtly, at low concentrations to which most of us are exposed, by altering the expression of our genes, especially during fetal development and infancy. As a result, a portion of the population becomes more prone to the diseases like ADHD and autism, obesity and diabetes, and breast and testicular cancers, among others.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is currently the most studied endocrine disruptor, and has been linked to numerous endocrine-related diseases. It is found in most plastics and epoxy resins used in everyday objects, including food and beverage packaging, and it has been detected in the urine of virtually everyone in the EU.
As of April 19, 2023, the health of European citizens will be better off because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has recognized that current dietary exposure to BPA constitutes a risk to human health. The new report finds that the current exposure limits for BPA far underestimate the harm this plastics additive causes to human health, and states that the new exposure threshold should be 20,000 times lower than the current one. In practice, this means eliminating BPA from all products in contact with food or drink, and it is expected that the European Commission will take the appropriate measures to do so.
However, the problem of endocrine disruptors goes far beyond BPA. The European Commission has a list of more than 500 substances suspected of acting as endocrine disruptors, of which more than 100 have been prioritized for study. It is important to highlight some points in the document published by EFSA on BPA, and they should be adopted as a standard in the future to regulate the rest of chemical compounds suspected of acting as endocrine disruptors.
EFSA’s current document analyzes the results obtained by independent scientific laboratories, something that has not always happened and does not happen in the equivalent agencies to EFSA in other countries; it must continue to be so and should happen in agencies globally.
The document recognizes that BPA acts at low doses, i.e., at the levels to which humans are exposed. Therefore, it must be accepted that other endocrine disruptors can also do so. EFSA also recognizes that BPA has different effects at low doses and at high doses; in fact, the absence of effect at high doses does not mean that low doses are safe. This property, relatively common in the case of endocrine disruptors, has very important regulatory consequences and must be generally accepted.
The health problems associated with BPA and other endocrine disruptors are global, and consequently the EFSA document must be considered by regulatory agencies around the world if human health is to be improved. EFSA’s action is undoubtedly good news for public health in the EU, which currently has the most health-protective regulations in the world, but there is clearly room for improvement.
Professionally, I have been involved in the scientific and regulatory journey of BPA since its inception in the mid-1990s. The research group I lead has been a pioneer in unraveling the molecular mechanism that initiates the cellular effects of BPA and in revealing its role as a risk factor for diabetes. This news has made me happy, but with the feeling that it comes late. Science moves at a much faster speed than regulation. The views of scientists and regulators on the same problem are often different. Science and regulation need to travel together if we are to deal effectively with the problems generated in our health as a consequence of the alteration of the environment by human activity.
Angel Nadal, PhD, is a Full Professor of Physiology and Deputy Director of IDiBE at Miguel Hernandez University of Elche, Spain