Last week, the plenary should have been voting on a resolution that called on the Commission to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from a number of food contact materials (FCM). However, the resolution, rejecting a flawed proposal from the college, was not adopted in Parliament’s environment committee. Sadly, a majority of MEPs were not ready to stand up to the Commission’s inconsistent proposal, thus legitimising the idea that there are safe levels of BPA in food.
The Commission relies solely on a 2015 European Food Safety Authority opinion to propose a 12-fold reduction in the amount of BPA permitted to migrate from some plastic FCMs. These include reusable drinking bottles, tableware and food storage containers. It will also introduce the same limit for the varnishes and coatings used to line the inside of food and drinks cans.
The proposal also specifies that BPA should not migrate from varnishes and coatings applied to materials or articles specifically intended to come into contact with food intended for children aged up to three. Scrutiny of the relevant legal texts reveals that migration of a small but measurable amount of BPA would remain legal.
Finally, invoking the precautionary principle, the current ban on BPA in infant feeding bottles is extended to drinking cups and bottles intended for children younger than three years old.
BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC), a type of substance capable of meddling with the body’s hormonal systems. There is evidence that it can alter reproductive function, mammary gland development, cognitive function, brain development and metabolism.
In June 2017, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)’s member state committee unanimously classified it as such, stating that BPA “is a substance with endocrine disrupting properties for which there is scientific evidence of probable serious effects to human health” and that “the range of experimental effects is predictive of serious health outcomes which are permanent and irreversible.”
While the new limits proposed may appear to only permit a tiny amount of BPA to leach into our food and drink from these specific FCMs, there are questions about how this can be effectively enforced.
It is difficult to determine how much BPA migrates; this depends on the consistency of the food, storage temperature, how often the food has been heated in the container etc. In relation to setting safe limits, the ECHA classification found that there are significant uncertainties in establishing a quantitative dose-response or even safe levels.
Indeed, many scientific studies have identified effects at doses below those used by EFSA in its derivation of the proposed new limits.
As with many EDCs, the timing of exposure could be very important. The most sensitive windows of exposure appearing to be during critical periods of development (for instance, foetal development and puberty). Many EDCs, including BPA, do not exhibit threshold effects.
In short, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the conclusion that any level of BPA in our food is safe. In that case, also taking into account the precautionary principle, I believe that such a dangerous chemical must be banned from our food without delay.
In addition to being scientifically incomplete, the Commission’s proposal is dangerously inconsistent. The proposal itself recognises “the extent of the scientific uncertainties” and that the developmental effects of BPA “could be irreversible and would last a lifetime”.
So while the precautionary principle is invoked to extend the ban to drinking bottles and cups for the under threes, other FCM intended for children of the same age will still be allowed to contain BPA.
The Commission also fails to invoke the precautionary principle to protect everyone, including very vulnerable groups such as children of all ages, breastfeeding and pregnant women and their unborn children.
Sadly, in addition, the Commission has systematically failed to take into account any of Parliament’s existing concerns.
In its October 2016 resolution on the implementation of the food contact regulation, Parliament called for a full ban on BPA in FCM, and explicitly rejected the migration limits in EFSA’s 2015 opinion.
MEPs also called for harmful substances already phased out under REACH to be phased out in FCMs - meaning that the ECHA classification should be a key consideration - for the concept of vulnerable groups to be extended to pregnant women and for the potential effects of low-dose exposure and non-monotonic dose responses (i.e. no threshold effects) to be included in the risk assessment criteria.
As the Parliament had a right of veto, the Commission heavily lobbied MEPs ahead of the vote, saying that if its proposal was rejected, the Commission would not come back with another proposal until yet another EFSA re-evaluation of BPA has been completed, which could take a further four years.
While a plenary vote to veto the proposal and call for an immediate ban would have indeed put the ball back in the Commission’s court, it would have - crucially in my view - been the right decision vis-à-vis citizens’ health.
Sir Austin Bradford Hill, the British scientist who together with Ricard Doll demonstrated the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s wisely said, “All scientific work is incomplete”.
He added, however, that this reality “does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge that we already have, or to postpone the action that it appears to demand at a given time”.
It is unfortunate that most of the Parliament’s environment committee did not follow his advice last week. However, I am hopeful that despite this opportunity having been missed, a growing number of MEPs will join myself and the Green group in our ongoing commitment to regulate toxic chemicals in our food based on scientific evidence.