When you buy something made out of plastic, do you look for the words BPA-free? When you see it, do you assume that means the product is safe for your family? I do. Or I did, until I did a little reading. Then I remembered a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend of mine who happens to be an expert on plastics. He told me then that BPA was no less safe than any of the other compounds used to manufacture plastic products. In fact, he said, it might even be less so. It just happens to be one of the more studied ones.
In other words: Maybe BPA is simply the devil we know. And the devil we don’t know yet, but are all quietly ingesting along with our spring water and fresh squeezed juice—that our babies are ingesting with their formula or breast milk—could be even worse.
That’s what Dominique Browning’s rather frightening NYTimes Op-Ed suggested yesterday. Bisphenol A, she claims, is just one of a group of Bisphenol-based compounds. After public outcry forced manufacturers to remove BPA from their products, they simply moved on to a different one, whether or not it had been well-tested for safety.
“The problem is that our regulatory system allows manufacturers to introduce or continue to use chemicals that have not been adequately tested for safety. A manufacturer can replace BPA with another untested compound and get a few years’ use out of it before it, too, becomes the subject of health alerts or news media attention. By the time we know what those new chemicals do to us, entire generations are affected. We are the guinea pigs.
The system is broken. We must reverse the process: test first. And we should allow only chemicals proven to be safe into the marketplace.”
Browning’s piece echoed a recent NPR story about a study in Environmental Health Perspectives. Here’s what that study found.
The bad news: The chemicals manufacturers have been using to replace BPA may actually have more Estrogenic Activity than the BPA itself.The study tested 450 baby bottles and water bottles available at U.S. retail stores. 95% of bottles, BPA-free or otherwise, leached estrogenic chemicals when submitted to everyday stresses like light and heat.
“Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled, independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source, leached chemicals having reliably-detectable EA [Estrogenic Activity] including those advertised as BPA-free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products.”
The good news:
The study’s authors think that developing plastics that do not leach hormone-like chemicals is possible—not only scientifically, but economically. “Our data suggest that EA-free plastic products exposed to common-use stresses and extracted by saline and ethanol solvents could be cost-effectively made on a commercial scale, and thereby eliminate a potential health risk posed by most currently-available plastic products that leach chemicals having EA into food products.”
So what can we do to help make that happen? Dominique Browning suggests that we fight.
“Parents of newborns hardly have time to take showers, much less make the endless and usually fruitless calls to inquire about the chemical components of their children’s sippy cups. We can do something important for new parents — after we’ve bought them glass bottles.
We can get angry, and demand action. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey recently introduced a bill to change our main chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, so that chemical companies would have to demonstrate to the E.P.A. that their products are safe before they are sold to consumers. We will have to make as much noise as newborns to get Congress to pay attention to Senator Lautenberg’s proposal and, more broadly, to chemical regulation.”
The degree to which we humans serve as chemical guinea pigs has been a source of anger and horror for me since even before I became a mother. But becoming pregnant drove the point painfully home. We can never fully protect our children from the world of risk. But shouldn’t our government be doing more to help us protect them? Lautenberg’s bill is called the Safe Chemicals Act. You can read more about it here.