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Game changer

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In 1997, Fred vom Saal’s lab linked low-level exposure of BPA to increased health risks. Since then, he has been an outspoken advocate for reform of the chemical regulatory system in the U.S.

Fred vom Saal never publishes another word on the hazards of bisphenol A, he has already transformed a little-known compound into one of the most studied chemicals in the world. 

Vom Saal sounded the first warnings about bisphenol A, or BPA, in 1997. Researchers in his lab at MU’s Division of Biological Sciences reported that fetal exposure to low levels of the chemical, which has been used in the production of plastics since the 1950s, had altered the adult reproductive system in mice. Since then, hundreds of peer-reviewed animal studies — more than 30 published by vom Saal — have linked BPA to increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and reproductive disorders. 

The science on BPA is about to get even more voluminous: After insisting for decades that BPA is safe, federal health officials have committed $30 million for new research to study the chemical’s effects on human health. Vom Saal’s team received more than $1 million to investigate how fetal exposure to BPA could potentially lead to prostate cancer later in life.

In November 2010, vom Saal accepted a prestigious Heinz Award in Washington, D.C., for his groundbreaking work on BPA. The award, worth $100,000, recognized his “deep, personal commitment to human health and well-being,” as well as his tireless efforts to educate the public, regulators, and state and federal lawmakers on the dangers of manufactured chemicals in the environment. In his acceptance speech, vom Saal said the growing body of scientific knowledge represents a “paradigm shift” for the health of future generations. 

“My background is in basic science, and it really didn’t occur to me when I started that I would end up … trying to change public health policy,” he said. “But we are now on a course that has the potential to help reverse numerous human diseases that are at epidemic proportions, such as diabetes, obesity and various neurological disorders.” 

Vom Saal says the Heinz Award brings another measure of credibility to his ongoing efforts to change how federal regulators judge the safety of toxic chemicals. 

“We don’t have a chemical regulatory system that’s functional, and we’re really, in that respect, like a Third World country,” he says. “It’s not surprising that we’re at Third World-country levels of infant mortality and infant disease and disease from food-related illnesses.”

Vom Saal’s willingness to point out the shortcomings of the regulatory system has made him a favorite of journalists on the BPA beat. He has been quoted countless times in the past decade, appeared on dozens of television broadcasts and testified before legislative bodies around the country.

“This has gotten to a point where the public has essentially made a determination that this is something I don’t want to be exposed to and I don’t want my babies exposed to.” – Fred vom Saal

His advocacy has pitted him against the chemical industry, which maintains that BPA is safe and has repeatedly challenged vom Saal’s credibility by insisting his research is biased or inconclusive. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced guidelines for limiting exposure to children and infants last year, for example, the American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers, issued a statement expressing concern that some of the recommendations are “not well-founded.”

Vom Saal is not surprised by the industry’s opposition. Some 8 billion pounds of BPA are produced every year, and the chemical is used to make everyday products, including plastic bottles, food and drink cans, dental sealant and paper sales receipts. He got an idea of the stakes involved back in 1996, shortly after presenting his first findings on low-dose effects to the National Academy of Sciences. 

“I get back here [to campus], and I get a phone call,” he remembers. “There are five people on the phone, all senior executives [of major chemical companies]. They started threatening me, ‘We’re extremely disturbed by your research.’ 

“I just said, ‘Goodbye,’ hung up the phone and called up the legal office and said I think I’ve really [angered] some people … 

“ ‘Oh that’s great,’ they said. ‘What did you do?’ 

“ ‘I’m doing NIH-funded research.’  

“They said, ‘Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do.’ ” 

Vom Saal says “the noise level” from the chemical industry has hardly abated since that day. “And there’s little to do about that,” he adds, “when you have a product that makes individual corporations billions of dollars, and those corporations have tremendous political influence.”

That influence is evident, vom Saal says, in the federal regulatory system’s reliance on the small amount of BPA research funded by the chemical industry. In a 2006 paper published in the journal Environmental Research, vom Saal analyzed 130 BPA studies. Of the 119 government-funded studies conducted in academic labs in the U.S., Europe and Japan, 92 percent reported adverse effects. None of the 11 industry studies reported harm. (A more recent tally, available on vom Saal’s MU website, reports that 98 percent of government-funded BPA research reported harm at low doses, while none of the industry’s studies found a problem.)

bpa free bottle

Fred vom Saal’s research led to a consumer rebellion against products made with the plastics additive bisphenol A. Now he wants government regulators to take a stand on toxic chemicals in everyday products.

“Science is not a football game where you find an effect and somebody does another experiment and finds the opposite and they neutralize each other,” vom Saal says. “Anybody can do an experiment and find nothing. The trick is to do an experiment and actually have the skill to detect when something is going on.”

The glaring weakness in industry research is its use of toxicological testing procedures established a half-century ago — methods that regulators still rely on when determining the safety of a chemical. But many scientists say these traditional methods cannot detect the adverse effects of endocrine disruptors — environmental chemicals, such as BPA, that mimic or interfere with hormones that control brain and reproductive development.

The guiding assumption in toxicology has been that the high-dose effects of a chemical will predict effects at lower doses. That doesn’t hold true for hormones, however. Endocrinologists have long known that, with hormones, less means more; that is, lower doses cause harm that does not occur at higher doses. Accepting this evidence would require regulators to lower the established “safe” level of BPA exposure by a factor of 5,000, vom Saal argues, and to demand that the chemical be eliminated from many common products.

Twynna Paul, an FDA spokesperson in Kansas City, Mo., referred inquiries about BPA to an agency website, which outlines its current policy. The FDA says that “standardized” toxicity tests support the safety of low-level exposure to BPA but that recent studies using “novel approaches” have raised some concern about potential effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children. The agency is encouraging alternatives to BPA in products for infants and children, while supporting “a more robust regulatory framework for oversight of BPA,” according to the website.

Federal regulators have been slow to respond to the science, but consumers haven’t. Vom Saal’s advocacy has provoked a grass-roots rebellion against BPA, prompting baby bottle manufacturers and some food companies to eliminate it from their products. Seven states — Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin — have limited or banned the sale of BPA-containing products. Canada recently declared the chemical toxic to human health and the environment. The European Union will prohibit it in sippy cups and baby bottles starting in summer 2011.

“This has gotten to a point where the public has essentially made a determination that this is something I don’t want to be exposed to and I don’t want my babies exposed to,” he says.

Vom Saal predicts the U.S. regulatory system will eventually come around. In fact, he’s planning on it. He recently applied won a $20,000 Mizzou Advantage grant to host a workshop that will "explore barriers that have prevented governments from incorportating findings from endocrine disruption research and taking regulatory action to reverse the trends in endocrine-related disorders." The event will bring together health advocates and scientists to discuss strategies to make regulatory agencies more responsive to research by independent scientists.

Vom Saal is confident MU officials will support this important gathering of the minds, just as they supported a Green Chemistry conference he hosted on campus in October 2010.

And just as they have stood beside him while he’s taken on powerful interests in the name of science and public health. 

“One of the reasons why I’ve stayed here is this university has been immune to outside forces,” he says. “They’ve helped fund this research, they’ve promoted it, and they’ve promoted me. This is not the case at every academic institution, I can assure you.”

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