Missed Opportunity

The Recent Failure to Ban BPA Does Not Bode Well for New Chemical Legislation

An amendment to the food safety act that recently passed in the Senate would have outlawed BPA in sippy cups—but the amendment was dropped after significant chemical industry pressure and lobbying efforts.

With all the fanfare over tax breaks for the rich and expiring unemployment benefits, an amendment that might have finally banned a chemical known to pose a health hazard to children quietly evaporated without the publicity it deserved. The chemical in question is bisphenol-A or BPA, a chemical found in lots of children’s products like sippy cups and plastic dishes, as well as in the linings of most canned foods and beverages, including liquid infant formula. Unfortunately, BPA doesn’t stay in the plastic or the can linings—it leaches into food products and is easily ingested when infants teethe on or eat from plastic products—particularly when those products are scratched, worn or heated.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January 2010 reversed its position and declared that BPA was unsafe, even at low doses. Studies have linked BPA to a number of scary diseases and disorders, including cancer, reproductive problems, heart disease, obesity and learning disabilities. But because BPA has been grandfathered in under the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) along with 61,000 other pre-existing chemicals, the FDA is essentially powerless to keep the chemical out of commerce. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now offers advisories as to how to minimize BPA exposure, and a host of individual states, including Connecticut, California, Minnesota, Washington and New York have banned the chemical. And nearly 90% of baby bottles and infant feeding cups currently on the market no longer contain BPA because the top six manufacturers—Avent, Doctor Brown"s, Evenflow, First Essentials, Gerber, Munchkin, Nuk and Playtex—voluntarily opted to stop producing them. To top it all off, major retailers like Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us (which includes Babies "R" Us) stopped stocking BPA-containing baby and kid products.

If ever there was momentum to ban a chemical of concern, this was it. So when California Senator Dianne Feinstein added an amendment to the Food Safety and Modernization Act that would have banned the use of BPA in food and drink containers, it seemed like the perfect timing. Here was an update to our sorely outdated food safety standards (the first such update in 70 years), with a sensible approach to the ingestion of harmful chemicals that’s as central to public health as the prevention of food-borne illnesses from bacteria-contaminated food. But Feinstein’s amendment met a wall of resistance from chemical manufacturers, even after it had been whittled into a bipartisan agreement to only ban BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups. Feinstein says chemical industry lobbyists—including those representing the American Chemistry Council (ACC)—undermined the amendment, and Republicans refused to pass the legislation unless the ban was taken out. So when the food safety bill passed the Senate on November 30, paving the way for what should be a public health victory to come—it proved, again, that the country is at the mercy of unchecked chemicals and has few ways to coerce industry into proving its products are safe. Instead, researchers turn up unsettling links between chemicals and diseases one by one, and consumers can only protect themselves by a lot of individual investigating and careful purchasing.

The failure to ban BPA even in baby products does not bode well for efforts to finally reform TSCA, so that federal chemical regulation may more closely match the known dangers of chemicals—even in low doses, and particularly during critical windows of development—as understood by modern science. Two recent attempts to overhaul the bill—the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 in the Senate and the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 in the House—are now dead, unable to find support even with a Democratic majority in Congress. The chemical industry—including the ACC, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Personal Care Products Council—spent more than $40 million in the first six months of 2010 to see the bills defeated.

BRITA BELLI is editor of E.