So there I was at work, putting my left-over Chinese dinner in the microwave.  While it was, of course, still in the Styrofoam in which I carried it home.  One of my vigilant co-workers was instantly on the case:  ‘What are you doing?  That’s bad!”  A little surprised, I wondered if I had accidentally put an adorable kitten or bunny in the mysterious cooking machine, until I realized they must have been concerned about the chemical BPA that might contaminate my body from microwaving Styrofoam.  (Although in fact, it isn’t in Styrofoam.)

Well, I proceeded.  I’ve been doing it for decades and, other than some mysterious weight-gain, (which could also be associated with eating too much at work), I haven’t yet suffered any deleterious effects.

Still, the concern is widely known.   BPA, or Bisphenol A, is a chemical used widely in the plastics industry; and we use a lot of plastic!. For a long time, consumers have expressed concern over its toxicity.  This is one of the reasons many have gone from drinking out of plastic bottles to drinking from metal bottles.

I work in an area where there are lots of raft guides.  They tend to use metal rather than plastic water bottles; presumably (at least in part) because of concerns over BPA’s.  Nalgene water bottles are also the rage among many people engaged in outdoor careers and sports.  Frankly, I like them.  I think they do look cool, they come in fancy colors and they certainly reduce the amount of plastic water bottles that end up in land-fills.

But to return to the point, the concern over BPA’s stems from the belief that BPA may leach into food products or drinks and cause health problems such as cancer or estrogenic effects; even more recently there have been concerns about heart disease and diabetes in epidemiological studies that suggested association (not causation) .

Because of the controversy, I was recently privileged to discuss Bisphenol A as part of a conference-call/pod-cast put on by Dr. Val Jones of Get Better Health.  The entire pod-cast is linked here if you have the time and interest.

The referee for the discussion was Dr. Steven Novella – academic neurologist at Yale University, and founder of the blog, Science-Based Medicine, and the new policy non-profit: The Institute For Science In Medicine.

(He is also author of a great review article on BPA

The featured guest for the discussion was Dr. Steve Hentges, who is the Executive Director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemical Council (ACC).

Dr. Hentges holds a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Stanford University, and has also conducted postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology.

In attendance were numerous physician bloggers and folks from the chemical industry.

Let me sum it up in a simple nutshell; you probably have chestnuts to roast and egg-nog to drink.  So far, the data looks like BPA’s (which are pretty ubiquitous in the plastics manufacturing world) probably do not cause any significant harm in the very low doses to which we in the populace are exposed.  It seems they are metabolized and excreted before they could cause harm, except in settings of much higher concentrations than the average person receives.  Obviously, there is more work to be done on the topic.

(Of note, it’s equally uncertain what harm may actually develop from drinking or eating food from metal containers without the standard plastic coating, which also contains BPA).

Granted, this is not in my normal area of expertise.  Heck, I can’t get people to stop using Oxycontin or Meth, what do they care about Styrofoam!?  But what fascinates me is the way we choose to believe things.

Americans, indeed, all humans believe what they want.  Period.  I will undoubtedly have readers tell me that BPA’s are the devil’s candy-coating.  I will probably have some say that I’m now an industry lap-dog.  And yet, the evidence (yes, there’s evidence) seems to suggest a pretty low level of risk.

We intuitively distrust large organizations, from industry to government.  OK, not everyone distrusts either one, but both seem to be standard sources of anxiety among the masses.  Understood!  Both have lousy track records when it comes to transparency and truth.  But my point is that even as we say we are modern rationalists, even as science is held up as the banner under which modern society marches, there are limits.  Humans believe in themselves.  And humans believe in those things that support what they want to believe.

Ironically, as thunderous rumblings of compromised climate science roll from the UK, the President still goes on about established consensus.  And I’ll get yelled at for that one too!  What is science?  Is it studies that examine hypotheses?  Or is it the thing that confirms what we want to believe?

It doesn’t matter if the topic is Bisphenol A in water bottles, treatments for Malaria, HIV transmission or global warming, modern humans have a remarkable ability to ignore data, even good data, when it doesn’t ring true…to them.

A better question we’ll eventually have to ask is not ‘what is science,’ but the age old uncertainty, ‘is it possible to know the truth?’

Until then, I’ll still be eating and drinking from plastic containers, storing my food in Tupperware and expecting to finish my life without man-breasts.

Why?  Because I choose to interpret the science that way.  How’s that for ‘Evidence Based?’


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