A Science Primer for Governor LePage
Maine’s Governor Paul LePage is in the media spotlight again, this time for making outrageous comments about the state’s proposed ban of the plastics chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in children’s products. He was dangerously mistaken when he claimed, “There’s not been any science identified that there’s a problem,” and he shocked people everywhere by saying, “The worst case is some women might have little beards.” Mr. LePage has embarrassed himself and outraged many people in Maine, but he has also provided us with a teachable moment – a chance to set the record straight, not only on the dangers of BPA, but on how science really works.
Mr. LePage correctly referred to BPA as an estrogen, but he was dead wrong in thinking it would cause facial hair in females. (That would be testosterone.) And not just women are affected by BPA –men and women, young and old are, because estrogens and androgens (like testosterone) are important hormones in us all. It is ignorant to say a little extra estrogen won’t harm us; it is arrogant to joke about it.
Mr. LePage claimed that “the science that I’m looking at” doesn’t support a ban on BPA. That is likely, because he’s not looking at all of the science, just a handful of BPA studies funded by the chemical industry, the very people who profit from BPA’s continued use. These studies, not surprisingly, show few adverse effects. This is what the chemical industry and Mr. LePage call “sound science,” but it isn’t sound at all, just the science that supports their viewpoint.
The LePage camp touts certain government claims of BPA “safety”, but even these assessments are often unduly influenced by biased information from the chemical industry. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its European counterpart concluded in 2008 that BPA was safe, they consulted a few industry studies that showed no effects of BPA, and they did not consider hundreds of peer-reviewed studies done by independent researchers with no conflicting ties to the chemical industry. The FDA actually reversed its claim of BPA safety in 2010, expressing concern that BPA is toxic to fetuses and young children. Several U.S. states, Canada, and the European Union have banned BPA in baby bottles.
Mr. LePage said that he’s not going to support a BPA ban “until scientists come in and tell me ‘This is the harm and science proves it’.” I would be happy to provide the Governor with a long list of esteemed scientists to invite to the Statehouse. They have published hundreds of independently funded and peer-reviewed studies that show clear evidence of harm from BPA exposure, including neurological and reproductive defects in fetuses and young children, as well as increased risks of breast and prostate cancers, all at BPA levels that we know humans are exposed to.
Mr. LePage wants proof of harm, claiming that, “Science, to be proven, has to be the same experiment repeated time and time again and you get the same results. Then you have real science.” This is a dangerous misrepresentation of science for two reasons.
First, the chemical industry wants the public to understand proof as 100-percent certainty, which should never be the standard for regulatory action to minimize exposure to toxic substances. Good science uses rigorous modeling and statistical analyses to ensure that results are accurate, and our knowledge grows as more studies are done and as we develop new measurement techniques.
Second, scientists tend to value the “weight of the evidence” for harm, rather than relying on a single “smoking gun” experiment. And the weight of evidence on BPA clearly shows it is has an alarming range of harmful impacts on fetuses and young children. The responsible reaction of decision makers should be to minimize human exposure by phasing it out of everyday products.
In spite of his shocking ignorance about the evidence for BPA harm, Mr. LePage signaled his willingness to listen when he said, “Let’s identify the science and I’ll be the first one to take it off the shelf.” I plan to hold Mr. LePage to this promise. There is no defensible reason for him to ignore hundreds of high-quality scientific studies and instead protect the financial interests of the chemical industry over the health of Maine’s children.
Dr. Carlson is a visiting assistant professor and research scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She serves as an Advisory Board member of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.