The Battle Over BPA

Amie Newman

Think the US Government is protecting against those invisible toxins in the air, in our water, in the food we eat, in the containers that store the food and beverages we consume? Think again.

This article was updated at 11:16am to correct the name of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

April 22nd is Earth Day.

It feels like an uphill battle at times. Protecting against those invisible toxins in the air, in our water, in the food we eat, in the containers that store the food and beverages we consume. We develop breast cancer, or polycystic ovarian syndrome or prostate cancer. And we wonder what the cause of these conditions might be. Heredity? Bad luck? How can we possibly place the blame on something we may come into contact with daily, products we assume are safe? We rely, of course, on government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help us identify what may or may not be safe. Unfortunately, the way the current system is set up may not be good for our health, according to a feature article by Jennifer Rogers published earlier this month on Rewire and confirmed by a new report, BPA Free and Beyond: Protecting Reproductive Health from Environmental Toxins by the Guttmacher Institute:

Some 2,000 new chemicals are introduced into the U.S. marketplace every year, according to the federal interagency National Toxicology Program (NTP). Yet, the NTP and others widely acknowledge that in many cases, neither corporations nor the government have adequately researched the ways in which exposure to these chemicals can affect people’s health and how much exposure is sufficient to constitute an unsafe risk.

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This is what’s happened with BPA or bisphenol A. BPA is a chemical used in food and beverage containers (including baby bottles, water bottles and canned fruit) which has now been called out by the FDA because of its potentially dangerous effect on human health including on the health of some particularly vulnerable populations like babies, young children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

And the reproductive health effects can be immense, found in both men and women. From the Guttmacher Institute’s report:

Effects particular to reproduction in males include abnormal development of the prostate and urethra, decreased sperm count and quality, sexual dysfunction and increased risk of prostate cancer. In females, reproductive health consequences include recurrent miscarriages, early puberty, abnormal uterus development, polycystic ovarian syndrome, uterine fibroids, increased risk of breast cancer and oocyte (egg) chromosome abnormalities.

Back in January of this year, the FDA “acknowledged concern” about BPA echoing concerns cited by the National Toxicology Program but, writes Sneha Barot for the Guttmacher Institute:

“…it is also true that it is notoriously difficult to establish a definitive, cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to a specific chemical and health problems that may not develop until many years later.”

Still, advocates have worked hard to raise awareness and push for more oversight. Nalgene, which produces water bottles, voluntarily decided to stop using BPA in their products because of pressure from advocates and consumers. With the federal government slow to act on BPA, states have taken to passing their own legislation to ban or limit the use of BPA in the production of consumer items.

Washington state banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups during the 2010 legislative session. The new law goes into effect in July 2011. Minnesota, Connecticut, New York and Illinois have all implemented various bans on BPA use in baby bottles as well.

These are positive steps towards protecting our children from harmful toxic chemicals. However, the Guttmacher Institute is quick to note that the FDA’s statement of concern,

“…focused only on infant exposure, ignoring precautions for other vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, breast-feeding mothers and women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, not to mention all other children and adults who are exposed daily to the chemical.”

What is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) role in all of this?

According to Lisa Stiffler of The Sightline Institute,

“Back in December [2009], EPA Chief Lisa Jackson was talking tough when it came to toxics. “Chemical safety is an issue of utmost importance, especially for children, and this will remain a top priority for me and our agency going forward,” she stated in a release.

So how do you explain her agency’s decision to postpone for at least two years an action plan on bisphenol A — a chemical that’s particularly threatening to infants and children and linked to obesity, cancer, diabetes, and behavior problems?”

The Guttmacher Institute notes that in fact the EPA is limited in its ability to “protect the public from toxic chemicals” because of current law, specifically the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which essentially allows companies to utilize chemicals in their products unless or until they are proven dangerous, instead of placing the responsibility on companies to first prove safety before disseminating for public use.

It’s why the EPA is now pushing for legislative reform that would change the system. In addition, there is a move on the federal level, slow as it may be, to address BPA specifically. Sen. Dianne Feinstein  (D-CA) introduced legislation to ban BPA from food and drink containers. According to an April 20, 2010 article on POLITICO, Feinsten told them:

“I introduced my bill to ban BPA from being used in food containers because I feel very strongly that the government should protect people from harmful chemicals. I continue to believe that BPA should be addressed as a part of the food-safety overhaul and plan to offer an amendment to do so.”

Groups like The Breast Cancer Action Fund that, according to POLITICO, “works to eliminate breast cancer’s environmental causes,” support the ban 100 percent. In addition to Feinstein’s bill (sponsored in the House by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA)), says the Guttmacher Institute,

“…several bills are currently pending that would directly affect BPA…Markey was able to include limited provisions on BPA in a food safety bill that passed out of the Energy and Commerce Committee last June. Companion bills introduced by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) would ban BPA in children’s food and beverage containers. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) has introduced legislation to require a warning label for any food container that contains BPA or that could release BPA into food. And, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) have sponsored the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act, which would establish a research program to help identify endocrine disrupting chemicals and determine their safety.”

However, notes Guttmacher, it is not feasible or efficient to simply rely on enacting new legislation every time a commonly used chemical is discovered to have potentially harmful health effects. Because of the TSCA, the EPA does not have sufficient power to truly protect Americans’ health from environmental toxins under current law. So, legislators like Sen. Frank Lautenberg have introduced bills that would reform TSCA –  instead of the EPA needing to prove harm, the chemical industry would need to prove safety. [Rogers’ article offers an action step to take on this bill.]  And lest you think, “Isn’t this just common sense consumer safety?!” this is not the de facto position in the U.S.

Scientists and advocates have been arguing, in the United States, for adoption of the “precautionary principle” to bolster reform of current legislation. This principle, says the Guttmacher report,  “enshrines the belief that when there is sufficient evidence of a risk of severe or irreversible harm, public policy should fall on the side of protecting the public, despite the lack of scientific consensus on direct proof of causation. This approach, they argue, may be especially important in a society in which consumers cannot buy their way out of using harmful substances because chemical exposure is so omnipresent.”

While the European Union and Canada are both using this “precautionary principle” to oversee chemical use in consumer products, the U.S., says Guttmacher, will likely not adopt the principle any time soon.

So, what are we as consumers and, well, humans living on this planet to do? Well, says Rogers of the Reproductive Health Technology Project, if you’re a reproductive health and rights supporter, you can play an important role by understanding just how much toxins in our consumer products may be affecting our reproductive and sexual health:

I believe the reproductive health movement must be a key player in achieving chemical policy reform.  Our movement has a legitimate, unique, and necessary role to play in educating the American public about the dangers of toxic chemicals and in mobilizing for policy change. Not only do we have considerable resources and infrastructure to contribute to these efforts, but according to recent opinion research, three of the four most effective messages in support of chemical policy reform involve reproductive health concerns.

And as far as BPA goes, it may be a precautionary tale about chemical use in consumer products. Just because a product is being sold on store shelves in the U.S., notes the Guttmacher report, doesn’t mean its safety is ensured by the government. It’s not only important to advocate for bans on harmful chemicals, it’s critical to support broader reform efforts. With “thousands of other, yet-undeveloped” chemicals “expected to enter the market, and inevitably our bodies” says the report; we cannot rely on the companies that produce the products to police themselves. We must shore up the regulatory laws and systems that oversee toxins in our products, so they can also advocate for Americans’ health and lives.

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