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Published: Monday, 3/19/2007

Judging a health risk

MOST Americans know little or nothing about a substance called bisphenol-A, which is why federal health officials and the chemical industry owe the public a definitive and unbiased explanation.

Bisphenol-A, a component of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resin, is a chemical whose potential toxic effects on human reproduction have increasingly gathered the attention of scientists, primarily because it is found in so many common items - from the plastic liners of food and beverage containers to throw-away tableware to electronics to sealants that protect teeth from cavities.

Some biological and genetic scientists are concerned that the chemical is harmful to people, even in minute amounts. Industry says it is harmless in the tiny amounts to which humans are typically exposed.

Questions about potential health hazards are nothing new in a society in which the pace of technology often outpaces the capacity to fully understand and appreciate the side effects.

Because bisphenol-A is ubiquitous, however, any doubts about its safety should be fully resolved and soon.

Laboratory studies on animals indicate the substance, which some scientists say can leach out of plastic, causes genetic changes that can lead to prostate cancer in men and problems like early-onset puberty in girls.

An independent panel of scientists was supposed to review a report on bisphenol-A being written by the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction at the National Institutes of Health. But then, according to published reports, questions were raised that a private consultant employed by the center was tied too closely to the chemical industry.

As a result, the review has been postponed and the verdict on bisphenol-A has not been issued.

We are not prone to reflexively side with alarmists on questions of health risks because almost any worthwhile human endeavor involves some risk. The question is how much.

Nonetheless, the Bush Administration has been so cozy with business and industry that some government reports immediately become suspect.

The question of bisphenol-A is no small matter, given its apparent health implications. The American public deserves an even-handed answer without any undue delay.



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