The plastics industry’s Pyrrhic victory
MONEY spoke louder than science in California’s legislature this week, as lawmakers decided between outlawing a chemical used in baby bottles, food containers and household products, and appeasing wealthy donors in the industry.
A bill in the California assembly, which passed the state senate in May, would have banned the use of bisphenol-A (BPA) in products used by children under the age of three. An avalanche of shameless lobbying killed it: the vote was 31 to 27 against, with 22 weaselly abstentions.
The brouhaha over BPA echoes the battle over smoking and cancer a generation ago. Sooner or later, health authorities in most developed countries will heed the scientific evidence and follow Canada’s lead in banning BPA—at least in baby bottles, if not in all household products.
Almost 1m tonnes of BPA are used annually in America, and over 3m tons worldwide. It is used to synthesise polyesters, polysulfones and polyether ketones. But its biggest and most controversial application is as a hardener for making polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins—the materials of choice for manufacturing clear, shatter-proof bottles, spectacles, medical devices and CDs as well as dental coatings and linings for food cans.
Scientists have been leery about BPA since the 1930s, when it was discovered to be an endocrine disruptor. Because it mimics the effects of estrogen, scientists have worried that it could cause all manner of physiological changes. And we now know that it does, at least in animals.
But alarm bells did not begin to ring until 1997. For one thing, the amount of BPA finding its way into everyday life soared, thanks to the bottled-water craze. For another, scientific literature started reporting on the adverse effects of BPA not just in huge laboratory doses, but in small amounts—such as people would receive when it leaches out of containers.
Since then, over 100 scientific studies have linked low doses of BPA to prostate and breast cancer, reproductive abnormalities, accelerated puberty in females, low sperm count in males, neurological effects similar to ADHD, diabetes and even obesity.
The effects have their biggest impact during early stages of development. Hence the special concern about protecting infants and young children from exposure to even the smallest doses of BPA. Altogether, more than 300 research papers have now been published on the health hazards associated with BPA.
But the plastics industry is not giving up without a fight. Last year, two government-convened groups came to almost opposite conclusions about the dangers of BPA. On one side, 38 of the world’s leading experts, who attended a workshop organised by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), concluded that people’s average levels of BPA now exceed those that cause harm in laboratory animals.
On the other, a panel under the auspices of the National Toxicology Programme (NTP), a partnership of federal health agencies, expressed only “some concern” that the chemical could cause changes in behaviour and the brain. It then went on to downplay the risks to adults, pregnant women and unborn children.
Criticism over unseemly influence from corporate sponsors forced the NTP to revise its study, but a draft of its new report (published earlier this year) came to many of the same conclusions—much to the chemical industry’s relief.
“You can say you have ‘some concern’ about practically anything,” said an industry spokesman. In other words, BPA is no worse than anything else you encounter every day.
Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has weighed in. Having previously declared BPA safe, the agency agreed last year to review the matter in light of mounting evidence to the contrary.
With impeccable timing, the FDA released its new findings—that BPA still poses no threat—last Friday, just three days before Monday’s vote in the California assembly.
In doing so, the FDA has blown what little scientific credibility it had left. And it has done the chemical industry no favour. Its latest assessment of the risks associated with BPA ignores all the peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject, not to mention the conclusions drawn by the NIH and its Canadian counterpart.
Instead, the FDA has relied solely on two flawed studies funded by the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, Bayer and other plastics makers. What on earth were they thinking?
As a result, the incoming Congress is now likely to enact legislation that could well prove more draconian than necessary. Meanwhile, disappointed lawmakers in California are already plotting their next move—a whole regulatory environment to govern the use of any substance deemed a threat to human beings, no matter how minor the risk. A comprehensive clearinghouse is envisaged for screening thousands of chemicals found in everyday life—the chemical industry’s worst nightmare.
Instead of spending millions to fight the Californian legislation, the chemical companies should have just hurried out some alternatives to BPA. Leading candidates include polyethylene and polypropylene—and, of course, good old glass.
One of the few firms cleaning up is Eastman Chemical. Its copolyester, Tritan, has become a firm favourite among plastic bottle-makers like Nalgene and CamelBak since the Canadian authorities gave it a clean bill of health, and Wal-Mart and Toys R Us announced they would be phasing out products containing BPA.
Meanwhile, the canning industry has been hard at work on alternatives to BPA-laced epoxy resins. Most of the new can liners are actually reformulations of the lacquers used before epoxy took over in the 1970s. Eden Foods, an organic food supplier based in Michigan, has long used cans with an oily enamel baked on the inside that’s derived from pine and balsam fir.
So what are worried parents to do until permanent replacements for BPA become available? Obviously don’t store food or beverages in polycarbonate containers (usually marked “PC”, or with a recycling code of 7 stamped on them). And never ever put anything hot in them. At elevated temperatures, the BPA in polycarbonate will leach out over 50 times faster.
Where possible, use only plastic containers denoted by a code 2 (polyethylene) or code 5 (polypropylene) in their triangular recycling symbols. And remember, while breast feeding has always been preferable, there’s a better reason than ever to do so today.
6 months ago