Do you like stories? Because I’m in the mood for a story.
Once upon a time, there was a little chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA was small and lumpy. It looked kinda’ like this:
Well, BPA may have been small, but it had a big impact. It was a boon to the multi-billion dollar plastics industry, for example. It was used in polycarbonate plastic — the hard, clear, shatterproof plastics that comprise water bottles, food packaging, and many infant bottles. It was also found in epoxy resins — the stuff that lines the tops of bottles, and many food cans and infant formula cans.
(Gosh, it sounds like it’s found everywhere! Why, yes, indeed! In fact a study suggests that it’s in the urine of 93% of the American population!).
This little ol’ chemical had a big impact in another way. Because it mimicked human hormones, it appeared to cause a whole host of health problems, including developmental toxicity, neurological damage, early onset of puberty, cancer, obesity, diabetes, fertility problems, and other nasty things.
Fortunately for BPA, it had friends in very important places. And I’m not just talking about the American Chemistry Council, who assured for years, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, that BPA makes our lives “healthier and safer, each and every day.” I’m not just talking about the manufacturers, either. Let’s meet some other friends of BPA — also known as The Villains of Tonight’s Story.
Enter Villain #1
This is the Washington DC home of the Weinberg Group (boo! hiss!) which was hired by Sunoco, a BPA manufacturer, to help defend the product against all those loonies who don’t like carcinogenic, fat-boosting, fertility-messing, brain-damaging chemicals. The Weinberg Group is a self-declared “international scientific and regulatory consulting firm.” The company’s clients include such winning products as Agent Orange, tobacco, and highly toxic pesticides.
The Weinberg Group knows all about public relations science. For example, they know that good public relations science isn’t about whether the product you sell is actually hurting anybody. Rather, good public relations science is about convincing people that the product you sell isn’t hurting anybody. That’s why, in a letter to another client, they said “[W]e will harness, focus and involve the scientific and intellectual capital of our company with one goal in mind—creating the outcome our client desires.”
(Science: it’s whatever our clients want it to be.)
They once even bragged on their web site about how they kept a harmful pharmaceutical product on the market for an additional 10 whole years after the FDA proposed cancellation (they’re that good). Apparently you can know good public relations science and still not be smart enough to keep that kind of thing off your web site. (more on that here, including the original page, if you want to see for yourself).
Enter Villain #2:
This would be the home of Sciences International (boo! hiss!), a contractor hired by the National Institutes of Health’s Center for the Evaluation of Risk to Human Reproduction. In 2003, the NIH hired Sciences International to evaluate BPA as a reproductive and developmental toxin. Sciences International performed a literature review for BPA toxicity. They chose and summarized studies for an expert advisory panel, who — based on this work — said, “No problem! BPA is safe! So safe!”
Unfortunately, it was later revealed that Sciences International had also been hired to work for Dow Chemical and BASF — both of which manufacture BPA! This called their findings into question. Just a little bit.
Oh, but come on. What’s a little BPA among friends? After all, scientists are most concerned about BPA’s impact on children! And the world has so many children! Besides, I believe children are the future. But the plastics and chemical companies are the now! Why don’t you get that?
Just to put this little story in context: there’s not much controversy about BPA’s health impact, even at low levels. Unless, say, you work for the plastics industry. As Grist reports, independent science tips heavily to the “not-safe” category. A survey reported in Environmental Health Perspectives reviewed 115 studies of BPA; of those, 94 (82%) show harmful effects. Yet another survey shows that while all 11 plastic industry-funded studies on BPA conclude that it poses no danger; 90% of 104 government- or university-funded studies say “Uh huh! Oh, yes, it does!”
Enter a Hero
If you’re like me, you’re looking for a hero right about now. I like to imagine him. I picture that he works for one of the chemical companies, or perhaps one of the Science-for-Sale contractors hired by the chemical companies. Our hero stands up at one of the strategy meetings — the one where they’re talking about how many more years they can suck out of this nightmare of a product — and says something dramatic, like “But the children! We must think about the children!”
He’s handsome in a skinny sort of way, our hero is. Glasses, dark brooding look to him. He’s an unlikely hero, speaks in a British accent perhaps. Maybe he looks a little like this:
Unfortunately, despite any resemblances to anyone else, this lone voice of reason has no special powers, and he totally sucks at quidditch — so much so that their company has lost the annual Really Bad Dudes quidditch tournament (to Monsanto, of course) three years running. So instead of letting him wage battle on behalf of consumers everywhere, his colleagues decide to poison him and he’s never, ever heard from again.
(Joke! That part of the story is totally made up! Lighten up, people! This is an industry that poisons people slowly, not quickly! Everyone knows that!!).
Enter Hero #2
Oh! Here’s an idea! The FDA can be our hero! Isn’t that part of their job, to make sure that products on the shelves aren’t hurting American consumers?
Wait. What? You’re telling me that when the FDA considered whether BPA was safe in infant formula cans, they ignored 100 published studies by government scientists and university laboratories? And they based their position on just two studies? And that both of these studies had been funded by the American Plastics Council? And one of them wasn’t even peer-reviewed? So now the agency is being investigated by Congress???
Okay. Forget the FDA. They totally suck at the hero thing.
Enter Hero #3
Don’t worry, folks! We do have a hero, and he looks like this:
Stop laughing. This is Tony Clement, Health Minister of Canada. Tony! My Man! My Main Maple Leaf Man! He’s the guy that announced that BPA would be officially listed as a toxic substance in Canada, a step that would allow Canada eventually to ban the manufacture, import or sale of baby bottles made with polycarbonate. That was a shot heard ’round the world. Within days, Wal-Mart announced they would pull baby products that contained BPA. So did Toys R Us. And Nalgene. And Playtex. among others.
(which is great, but just for the record, I do not put these companies in the “hero” category. Not like my unlikely stud-muffin of a conservative politician, Tony Clement!!! The reason? This issue started getting coverage five freakin’ years ago — five years during which my kids drank from BPA-leaching bottles, sucked on BPA-leaching pacifiers and consumed foods that had been in BPA-lined cans. Patagonia phased out BPA three whole years ago. These companies? Nope. They just kept making toxic products for me to put in my kids’ mouths, until my studerooni Tony told them it was time to cut the crap).
Now, thanks in part to my cute-n-cuddly lover-not-a-fighter brand new boyfriend Tony Clement, this whole BPA thing is finally getting mainstream coverage — like here and here and here and here. Even the U.S. government, our shamed Un-hero, is paying attention. The U.S. government’s National Toxicology Program (of the National Health Institutes) has officially declared that there is “some concern” about BPA, and the FDA is at last reviewing the chemical again. (hey, guys, here’s a tip: this time don’t just rely on 2 industry studies. Take a look at the other hundreds of studies, too, ‘kay?)
For all of us parents, there’s now a whole web site dedicated to BPA free kids products — bottles, dishes, sippy cups, pacifiers, spoons, you name it.
For your food storage needs, check out Culinate’s nice, simple overview of food storage options that won’t kill you or the planet.
Some other tips: wherever possible, buy foodstuffs that are packaged in glass instead of plastic (or better yet, buy fresh). Don’t drink anything hot from plastic. Avoid #7 plastics like the Plague. And for your own drinking needs, go for one of these water bottles.
And they lived happily ever after…
Tony and I did, that is. In our BPA-free little world. Now how long does it take for that stuff to leave our pee?!!