Bad Science May Banish Paper Receipts

My op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal about the debunking of the BPA scare.

Having vanquished plastic straws, the California Legislature is now considering a bill to ban paper cash-register receipts. One reason offered for the ban is to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. The other is to reduce public exposure to bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical used to coat receipts.

Whatever one’s opinion about climate science, it’s clear that eliminating the carbon footprint of California’s paper receipts won’t affect the global climate. Some 1,200 new coal plants are being planned or built around the world, and oil and gas production and use are rising through the roof. Even a global ban on paper would have no significant impact on atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels.

The more interesting reason for the ban is the BPA argument, which is part of a broader trend of misuse of science in public policy. The alarm behind the California bill arises from the notion that BPA is an “endocrine disrupter”: a chemical that, even at low doses, can disrupt human hormonal systems. Such disruptions theoretically could cause a variety of ailments, from cancer to reproductive problems to attention-deficit disorder.

Like the panic over DDT that followed the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the endocrine-disrupter scare made its public debut with a book, “Our Stolen Future” (1996). Written by three activist authors and including a foreword by Al Gore, the book lays out a case for regulating various pollutants.

“Our Stolen Future” was followed the same year by a highly publicized Tulane University study that reported certain combinations of pesticides and other chemicals in the environment were much more potent endocrine disrupters than the individual chemicals themselves. Within weeks, this study prompted Congress to pass a bill directing the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a program to test chemicals for their potential harm to hormonal systems.

In the months that followed, the Tulane study began to fall apart. Independent laboratories around the world reported that they could not replicate its results. By July 1997, the original study was retracted. Federal investigators concluded in 2001 that the Tulane researchers had committed scientific misconduct by falsifying their results.

Yet the law and regulatory programs spawned by the false study remained in place. The endocrine-disrupter scare gained steam through the 2000s, and BPA became its biggest villain. Generous federal funding led to the publication of hundreds of BPA studies. A movement to ban BPA was joined by several cities, states such as California, and foreign nations including Canada, resulting in the elimination of the substance from plastic bottles in those regions. Regulators at the Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority pushed back against the scare, to little avail.

Finally in 2012, the FDA decided to launch Clarity, a large $8 million study of BPA to be conducted according to regulatory guidelines known as the Good Laboratory Practices standard. Researchers, including those who had published studies claiming that low-dose exposures to BPA posed health risks, were provided with coded, pre-dosed animals to avoid bias and cheating. Researchers were required to upload their raw data to a government database before the identity of each dose group was disclosed to them.

The results of Clarity were published in 2018. The FDA concluded that the study failed to demonstrate adverse health effects from exposure to BPA in low doses—like the amount one might be exposed to by handling a paper receipt.

Yet despite its birth in scientific misconduct, its dismissals along the way by international regulators and science and public-health groups like the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, and finally its debunking by the FDA’s Clarity study, the BPA scare survives. Thanks to Congress, it lives on at the EPA, where a 22-year-old endocrine-disrupter screening program peddles merrily along despite producing no results of interest.

It is a sad state of affairs when actual science cannot vanquish adjudicated science fraud in public policy.

Mr. Milloy publishes JunkScience.com, served on the Trump EPA transition team, and is author of “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA.”

Appeared in the February 26, 2019, print edition.