Is BPA Toxic?

Marc Gunther at GreenBiz.com describes the battle over removing BPA from plastics. It is widespread — about 9 of 10 Americans have the chemical in their urine.

Link: How Wal-Mart Became the New FDA – Column | GreenBiz.com.

Wal-Mart …, along with CVS and Toys ‘R Us, says it will stop selling baby bottles containing a controversial chemical called bisphenol-A. The California state Senate has voted to prohibit the use of BPA in children’s products. Nalgene, which makes water jugs, is phasing out BPA, too. And powerful Congressmen want BPA removed from cans of infant formula.

The question is, why? The FDA says bisphenol-A is perfectly safe. So do Japanese and European regulators, who tend to be more cautious. Even the government of Canada, which plans to ban the chemical from baby bottles, recently assured its citizens that this was done “as a precautionary measure.”

BPA, you should know, is everywhere. The chemical is used to make polycarbonate, a rigid, clear plastic used in bottles, bike helmets, CDs, DVDs and automobile headlights. It’s also used to make epoxy resins, which are used as coatings in food and drink cans as well as dental sealants. You’re probably carrying around some BPA right now: About 93% of Americans tested by the Centers for Disease Control had the chemical in their urine. About 6 billion pounds of chemical were made last year.

The trouble is, numerous studies of laboratory animals have linked small doses of BPA to breast cancers, prostate cancer, brain abnormalities and reproductive health problems. Other scientists argue that the chemical, which has been widely used since the 1950s, is perfectly safe. The fact is, there’s a good deal of scientific uncertainty about bisphenol-A. That’s not surprising, because we rely on animal studies to predict the effects of chemicals on humans, and extrapolating from mice to you and me isn’t easy.

But this story isn’t fundamentally about science. It’s about the politics of BPA. More broadly, it’s about how we, as a society, make decisions about health and safety, at a time when we no longer trust the government or industry to protect us. Because we’ve lost faith in those big institutions, battles over a slew of products and processes—genetically modified foods, the irradiation of meat, or phthalates in cosmetics or children’s toys—are being fought in the court of public opinion, for better or worse.

In the case of BPA, the market for hard-plastic baby and sport bottles collapsed suddenly this spring because of a hard-hitting campaign against the chemical by activist groups, concerned scientists, politicians, and trial lawyers. They spread fears about BPA that eventually convinced nervous retailers to turn away from children’s products containing the chemical. As an expert in crisis PR noted, wryly, “Wal-Mart is the new FDA.”

For companies that make chemicals or use them in consumer products, this is a real worry. It’s a whole lot easier to frighten people than it is to reassure them, especially when talking about kids. “The science can’t compete with the emotion,” says Steve Hentges, a chemist and a lobbyist with the American Chemistry Council, an industry group that lately has been on the losing end of the BPA battles.

If the most determined opponents of BPA get their way and drive the chemical out of the food supply, consumers will pay the costs. Some BPA-free plastic bottles sell for $10 each, more than twice the price of bottles with BPA. Baby bottles made of glass can break, potentially causing injury. Replacing BPA in the lining of aluminum cans would mean retooling all that packaging, and it’s not clear that there are safe alternatives.

Those costs are worth paying to protect our health, environmentalist say. They argue that if government regulators can’t or won’t do the job of regulating potentially toxic chemicals, then it makes perfect sense for advocacy groups, politicians, an aggressive media and even Wal-Mart to step in.

“The federal regulatory system for chemicals is broken,” declares Richard Liroff, the executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit that works with companies on issues of toxics. “We have largely incapacitated the government to make the kinds of decisions that we ought to be able to look to government to make. So there’s a lot to be said for having big companies slice through the knot and say we have to make decisions for our good, for our customers’ good and for the good of society.”

If nothing else, the BPA battles underscores how rapidly markets can by reshaped by activist campaigns and consumer sentiments, both magnified by the Internet. A handful of companies emerged as winners this spring: Whole Foods Market, which pulled BPA baby bottles and cups off its shelves several years ago; Eastman Chemical, which introduced a plastic alternative called Triton last year; and Born Free, a private company started in 2006 specifically to provide BPA-free baby bottles. Others, including SABIC Innovative Plastics, which was formerly the plastics division of GE and is now the U.S.’s biggest manufacturer of BPA, presumably saw sales decline. (SABIC declined to comment on the financial impact.) Baby-bottle makers including Avent America, Evenflo and Gerber Products are now being sued because they sold products made with BPA.

This spring’s BPA battles were fought like a political campaign, complete with catchy soundbites, press releases, personal attacks, and warring websites. One prominent and controversial crusader is Dr. Frederick vom Saal, who has been researching BPA for more than a decade. Vom Saal has testified before state legislatures and appeared on such TV programs as PBS’s Frontline and ABC’s 20/20 to denounce BPA in terms that gloss over scientific uncertainty. Referring to the fact that BPA is a mild estrogen, he says things like “the idea that you’re using sex hormones to make plastic is just totally insane.”