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BPA: Surprisingly strong effect on the body politic

Magnifying Glass GirlLindsay Dahl, Deputy Campaign Director

It’s hard to pronounce, and even harder to find on a product label, yet the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) has become a household word. BPA comes up in casual conversation: Have you switched out your water bottles yet? Do I really have to live without canned green beans? So how did this obscure chemical become one of today’s most potent symbols for the perils of modern life?

Unhappy accidents

It all started with a series of lab accidents in the 1990s. Like the dirty work station that produced the unsightly fungus we now call penicillin, these accidents helped scientists realize that BPA in plastic objects does not stay put – it leaches out of its original container. And that changed everything. These lab accidents launched hundreds of studies into the effects of BPA, the ubiquitous chemical now linked to everything from cancer to infertility to obesity.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • In 1993, a group of cancer researchers at Stanford University found that a mysterious estrogen was altering the breast-cancer cells they were studying. They were baffled, but eventually traced the reaction to the BPA-laden plastic flasks they were using to sterilize water. This discovery launched further research into how very low doses of BPA could disrupt hormones and lead to things like miscarriage, erectile dysfunction, breast cancer, and heart disease.
  • In 1998, Patricia Hunt, a geneticist then working at Case Western Reserve University, noticed a confusing change in the eggs of the female mice she was studying. Why were 40% of the eggs abnormal—instead of the usual rate of 1% to 2%? Hunt’s team solved the mystery when they realized the plastic mouse cages were melting a little during the washing process, releasing BPA into the cages (and the bodies of the mice).

The dose makes the poison?

Just as researchers did not know the extent to which BPA could leach out of a plastic flask or mouse cage; they also did not understand how much havoc a tiny dose of BPA could cause. Starting in the mid-1990s, researchers realized that lower doses were potentially more dangerous than higher doses, disrupting hormone development in mice. In short, previous standards for measuring BPA safety were next to worthless.

Enter the baby bottle

Many of our coalition partners have been tracking the expanding body of research and growing concerned about BPA. Through a combination of old-fashioned grassroots organizing, media outreach, and getting in touch with online parenting sites and mom bloggers, people started paying attention.

BPA struck a nerve on parenting websites, where people gathered to discuss important decisions like, which car seat is safest? These careful parents were shocked when they discovered the baby bottles and sippy cups they had been handing their children were laced with a hormone-disrupting chemical. [pullquote]/Realizing their painstaking efforts to ‘shop smart’ were inadequate, parents started demanding change from their elected representatives./[/pullquote]

States take the lead

Last year I worked in Minnesota with a diverse coalition called Healthy Legacy, to pass the nation’s first restrictions on this nasty chemical. The bill, phasing out BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, was the first nail in the coffin for the pervasively used chemical. Shortly after, Connecticut, Washington, Vermont and more passed restrictions on BPA. Here’s a complete listing of states that have put restrictions on BPA.

Baby bottle manufacturers quickly understood that BPA was the kiss of death, and changed their formulas. Thanks to those early activists and angry parents, it’s hard to find a baby bottle or sippy cup in any state these days that doesn’t have a label saying ‘No BPA!’

Beyond the baby bottle

BPA is just one of thousands of toxic chemicals that our nation’s weak laws don’t protect us from, but its story illustrates our government’s failure to keep up with the times. It’s not just the FDA or the EPA — it’s the whole system.

BPA is found in hundreds of common products, like plastic water bottles, canned food, infant formula, wine bottles, beer cans, receipt paper and yes, toilet paper. There’s no simple route to routing BPA from our lives — the products listed above are actually regulated by different federal agencies; so if we regulate BPA canned food (FDA), we can still be exposed to it from a paper receipts (EPA).

I don’t know about you, but the majority of people I talk to don’t think or care about what products fall under what federal agency. [pullquote]/People just want to be able to buy food, drinks, toilet paper and the like knowing they are free of BPA and other harmful chemicals./[/pullquote]

Congress takes action

The state leadership on BPA had several good effects — most important, it set the stage for serious Congressional action.

Two important bills are working through Congress and we need you to contact your federal delegation today to support these measures.

  1. On April 15, 2010, Congress unveiled strong legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. The long-awaited, landmark legislation would overhaul the way the federal government protects the public from toxic chemicals like BPA.
  2. Senator Feinstein has introduced an amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would phase-out BPA from food and drink containers. Congress needs to know you support this important legislation.

Here’s the silver lining: because of the uproar over BPA, people from communities all over the nation have discovered that the products they use every day are made with chemicals that have not been tested for safety. And once people come to that realization, they are no longer willing to live with the status quo. How about you?