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Environment | spring 2009

Dangerously Hard
Canada has already banned the plastic additive BPA—so why hasn’t the U.S.?

BY REBECCA CLARREN

THE LABEL OF YOUR FAVORITE soup pledges superhealthy contents: organic, low-fat and free of nonhydrogenated oils. But look again: The soup’s can or plastic tub itself may be toxic.

Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to harden plastics, is ubiquitous, showing up in baby bottles, the lining of canned foods and beverages, dental sealants, water bottles and thousands of other household products. BPA, which mimics some hormones, can leach into food and water. At even tiny amounts it can trigger cell changes that may be devastating over time. Studies have found that exposure to BPA increases the risk of breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, infertility and, in infants, adverse developmental and neurological effects. And most of us have been exposed: Ninety-three percent of the more than 2,500 adults and children tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 and 2004 had BPA in their urine.

Last year, Canada banned BPA from baby bottles. But in August, the Bush administration-run FDA ruled that current levels of BPA exposure posed no health risk. The assessment ignored approximately 250 independent studies, including those conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, relying instead on two industry-financed studies. Large portions of the FDA’s assessment contained the same language as reports written by companies that use BPA in their products. Furthermore, the FDA panel’s chair, Martin Philbert, had just months before received a $5 million donation to his research center from a former medicalsupply manufacturer who had spent years fighting government regulation of pollutants and who is a vocal supporter of BPA.

Consumer and environmental groups hope that the Obama administration—which chose former New York health commissioner Margaret Hamburg as the new FDA head— might follow Canada’s lead, especially in light of research published in January in Environmental Health Perspectives finding that BPA stays in the body much longer than previously thought. That allows it more time to damage cells, increasing the risk of disease. So far, however, the FDA has not overturned its controversial ruling: In early December, it announced it would instead invest in further study.

“It’s so egregious; the FDA is leaving consumers to be the continual guinea pigs of BPA exposure,” says Urvashi Rangan, a Consumers Union senior scientist. “The FDA continues to stand by a 20-year-old standard that is not based in the current understanding of science. In terms of taking steps to protect public health, they’re asleep at the wheel.”

In lieu of agency action, politicians are attempting a partial ban of BPA. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation this spring to outlaw BPA in food and beverage containers. At least 19 states are also considering banning the chemical from certain products sold in their jurisdictions.

In the meantime, concerned consumers can look for an increasing number of toys, water bottles and children’s products labeled BPA-free. To avoid the BPA-laden resin inside most cans, switch to buying frozen or fresh vegetables (Eden Foods, an exception, uses an alternative plant-based coating on the inside of their canned beans). Use powdered baby formula instead of liquid. If you do use plastics, look for those with recycling numbers 1, 2 or 5 and avoid numbers 3 (PVC) or 7 (polycarbonate). When heating foods, avoid all plastics and stick to porcelain, glass or stainless steel (I’m a fan of Pyrex). A recent study indicates that BPA may leach into plastic water pipes, so place filters on your drinking-water taps.

The FDA may not be doing its job yet, but as consumers and citizens, we can do ours. Call your legislators; urge them to get down to the hard business of protecting our future.

REBECCA CLARREN, an investigative journalist, is a 2009 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow. She writes for various national magazines about environmental health issues from Portland, Ore.