The primary focus of vom Saal's research is bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that is found in polycarbonate plastics, which are used in steel food can linings, Lexan items, Nalgene bottles, baby bottles, spill-proof toddler's cups, plastic wrap, microwave-safe plastic dishware, and food containers. He says the chemical mimics powerful sex hormones and even small doses can cause brain damage, abnormal organ development, and hyperactivity. Vom Saal noted that many -- but not all -- products that have a 7 inside the recycling triangle symbol contain BPA, which he said is one of the biggest chemicals in production worldwide, with more than 6 billion pounds created and used annually.
Alongside fellow University of Missouri professors Susan C. Nagel and Wade Welshons, vom Sall began researching BPA in the mid-1990s after trying to determine the fetal effects of high levels of estrogen in a mother during pregnancy. It was already known that high levels of estrogen can cause cancer, abnormal brain development, and reproductive problems in humans and animals, so that caused vom Saal to consider how the chemical would effect a developing fetus. They found a barrier in the body fights off the negative effects of sex hormones, and vom Saal said he then wondered how that barrier would react to birth control and chemicals.
In the case of BPA, at least, the answer was: not well. The BPA was able to bypass the barriers in laboratory tests. Vom Saal added that BPA causes uncontrolled cell growth, harms health and may promote obesity.
"Our research showed harmful effects at a dose 2,500 times lower than the chemical industry said could cause harm," vom Saal said.
However, as he is an endocrinologist -- studying the endocrine glands and hormones -- his research on harmful chemicals is not as respected as that of a toxicologist. Vom Saal's tests have not shown the chemical to be immediately fatal, so he said toxicologists do not consider it to be dangerous enough to follow up on his research.
Nevertheless, one day Welshons and vom Saal were visited by a Dow Chemical Company representative who indicated the company wanted the findings withheld.
"This is a direct quote. He said, 'Can we arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome where you hold off publishing this study?'" vom Saal said. He and Welshons refused the request, and published the study in the January 1997 issue of the National Institutes of Health journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. Then, the two sent a letter to the FDA, the University of Missouri chancellor, and various media outlets, reporting the visit from Dow.
"When that paper was published, the chemical industry started attacking us," vom Saal said. "Nobody had ever looked at this, and of course the chemical industry said, 'That's not true.'"
According to Dow public relations representative Mark Walton, a scientist from the company visited vom Saal with a request to withhold the study until the MU scientist had investigated several other research questions, but he said that any ideas of a buyoff were a misunderstanding.
After vom Saal's team published their first article on BPA, he received a warning from an EPA representative that said the chemical industry was planning a massive ad campaign promoting the safety of plastics -- the very ones vom Saal had found to be harmful -- for infants and children.
"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."