Fred vom Saal averages a 14-hour workday. As an MU biological sciences professor, his days begin at 6 a.m., and from then until late evening, he conducts laboratory research, writes papers, meets with students and browses the Internet.
For all his efforts, vom Saal has one goal: to see the day when some plastics corporations are seen in the same light as companies that make asbestos or sell tobacco.
Since 1995, vom Saal has studied the effects of bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical found in many plastics and in the linings of steel food cans that prevent food from acquiring a metallic taste. BPA mimics the effects of powerful sex hormones, vom Saal says, and can cause brain damage, abnormal organ development and hyperactivity even when present in small doses.
“There’s over 6 billion pounds of this made and used a year,” explained vom Saal, who works with MU professors Susan C. Nagel and Wade Welshons on his research. “It’s one of the biggest chemicals in production in the world.”
BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics, which are used in many types of baby bottles, toddlers’ spill-proof cups, Lexan items, Nalgene bottles, plastic wrap, microwave-safe plastic dishware and food containers. Many plastic items that carry the number 7 inside of the recycling triangle contain BPA, although not all items with that number have the chemical.
Vom Saal and Nagel began their initial research on BPA in the mid-1990s. The team’s primary research goal was to examine the fetal effects of high levels of estrogen present in the female body during pregnancy. High doses of estrogen are known to cause cancer, abnormal brain development and reproductive abnormalities in humans and animals, vom Saal said, so he questioned how a developing fetus could remain safe.
The team discovered that the body utilizes a barrier system in the blood to ward off potentially negative effects from sex hormones such as estrogen. After learning that, vom Saal said they wanted to know how the system worked with birth control and chemicals.
In laboratory tests, BPA bypassed the protective barriers. “Our research showed harmful effects at a dose 2,500 times lower than the chemical industry said could cause harm,” vom Saal explained.
Shortly before the publication of the first BPA study, vom Saal said, a Dow Chemical Company representative paid a visit to Welshons and him, indicating the company wanted them to withhold the findings.
“This is a direct quote. He said, ‘Can we arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome where you hold off publishing this study?’” vom Saal remembered with a laugh.
Vom Saal said he and Welshons refused, and the study was published in the January 1997 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a National Institutes of Health journal. He and Welshons reported the visit from the Dow Chemical Company representative in a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, the MU chancellor and a number of media outlets. Before long, vom Saal was featured on PBS’ “Frontline” and ABC’s “20/20.”
“When that paper was published, the chemical industry started attacking us,” he said. “Nobody had ever looked at this, and of course the chemical industry said, ‘That’s not true.’”
Mark Walton, a public relations representative for Dow, said a company scientist visited vom Saal to try to make arrangements to withhold the study. Walton said, however, that the Dow scientist wanted vom Saal to investigate several other research questions before publishing his report. According to Walton, any ideas of a buy off are a misunderstanding.
Credibility is a necessity in the scientific community, as vom Saal will readily explain. “You don’t come back from losing trust in the scientific community,” the researcher said. “Whether you survive or die is based on one thing and one thing only: Is what you published right?”
Vom Saal always believed his findings were true, but they opened the door for two major dissenters: toxicologists and members of the chemical industry.
Vom Saal specializes in endocrinology, or the study of hormones and the endocrine glands, but toxicologists study poisonous chemicals. Toxicologists, vom Saal explained, test unknown chemicals to determine if they are growth-inhibiting or lethal.
Since tests with BPA never proved immediately fatal, toxicologists saw no cause for concern, he said. BPA can boost growth, which leaves the chemical in good standing from a toxicology stance.
But as an endocrinologist, vom Saal sees plenty of problems. He said BPA causes uncontrolled cell growth. He said it harms health and may promote obesity. But he said because of the “clash of disciplines” between endocrinologists and toxicologists, his research has had a hard time holding the respect of some scientists.
After publication of his team’s first BPA article, a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency warned him that the chemical industry had planned an extensive advertising campaign to promote the safety of plastics for infants and children. The same plastics, vom Saal said, that are particularly dangerous to infants because they contain BPA.
“There are risks to everyone, but in babies they’re permanent,” said vom Saal. “Exposure of human or animal babies to bisphenol A is going to have a permanent, harmful effect. Once that effect occurs, you’re not going to be normal, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
To date, approximately 175 studies have examined the health risk of BPA. Thirteen of them are industry-funded, vom Saal said, and they all say the chemical is safe. Some say BPA even offers health benefits. Most of the remaining studies have replicated vom Saal’s work, in one form or another, vom Saal said.
“In the world I live in, it’s completely self-correcting. If you do something that doesn’t replicate (with other scientists’ research), you’re toast,” said vom Saal.
Whether or not he is believed, vom Saal said that, in time, the public will not be able to dispute the facts.
Vom Saal said his best option is to let the research speak for itself. He has advised California lawmakers, members of Congress and White House officials about his findings.
He is still working to prove himself, but he said it’s a battle worth fighting. Together with biology research professor Julia Taylor, he is now applying for a National Institutes of Health grant that would allow him to research a potential link between BPA and prostate cancer in mice.
Nagel, an MU assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health, said vom Saal is always willing to incorporate a variety of techniques in his research.
“He definitely tends to think outside of the box. This often allows him to be on the leading edge of research questions,” Nagel said.
Vom Saal has also adjusted his personal life to minimize his risk of harm from BPA. He and his wife never use plastic dishware in the microwave or place hot food in it because heat can cause plastic to become unstable, he explained. They occasionally use non-polycarbonate plastics to freeze food, then heat it in the oven in glass containers.
The couple has no children around their home to protect from the chemical, but vom Saal said that could change. He and his wife have one daughter, and vom Saal wants grandchildren someday.
“... They won’t have polycarbonate baby bottles,” he said.