It began with a phone call between two sisters. Who then called two friends, who called their friends. And so on. At first blush, it doesn’t seem possible that virtually the entire U.S. baby bottle supply – millions of bottles – could be completely reconfigured within two years by a modern day “telephone game” played by new moms. But it’s true. The extraordinary level of mom-to-mom word of mouth communications about toxic chemicals in baby bottles launched a series of events that changed the baby bottle market in record time, raised the market and political profiles of “power moms,” and rocked the chemical industry so hard that the reverberations are still felt today.
In 2006, Alicia Voorhies’s sister Joanie Whitman called in a panic after visiting the pediatrician with her newborn son for the first time. The doctor recommended that Joanie use only glass bottles and stay away from the clear plastic bottles to avoid exposing her son to estrogen that leached from the plastic. Whitman, who had recently moved to South Carolina from Kansas, was worried that her son’s doctor was “off his rocker.” She called Voorhies, a retired nurse living back in Kansas and self-described “research geek,” who set off to prove the doctor wrong. It didn’t take her long to learn, to her dismay, that the warning given by her sister’s pediatrician was both correct and alarming.
Children’s health was not part of the manufacturing decision
Voorhies uncovered hundreds of studies by research scientists and governments that had found the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) mimics the hormone estrogen and can disrupt normal functions of the body. BPA, one of the highest volume chemicals produced in the world, is a core component of polycarbonate plastic used to make baby bottles and reusable water bottles, the lining of food and beverage cans, and cash-register receipts. Human exposure is widespread; over 90 percent of people in the United States have BPA in their blood and urine, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even low levels of exposure have been linked to health effects including reproductive harm, increased cancer susceptibility, and abnormalities in brain development.
Armed with this information, Voorhies began to search for a BPA-free plastic baby bottle that her sister could use. But in 2006, consumers were in the dark about BPA; it was not widely known that baby bottles were made with a chemical that could be dangerous to babies and children. When Voorhies called baby bottle manufacturers to ask them if their bottles contained BPA, “they thought I was insane,” she recounts. Manufacturers couldn’t give her answers about whether BPA was in their baby bottles, and the people on the other end of the line rarely even knew what BPA was.
Fast forward to 2011. Today you’d be hard pressed to find a baby bottle made with BPA available on store shelves anywhere in the country. And that’s primarily because women, outraged that there was a dangerous chemical in their babies’ bottles, exerted a gale force wind of market, media, and political pressure that led baby bottle manufacturers to abandon BPA within just a few years of Joanie Whitman’s call to her sister, Alicia Voohies.
No Guarantees of Safety
Rejecting BPA baby bottles was a cultural bonding moment shared by moms across the country; it didn’t take public information materials or celebrity campaigns to make mothers skeptical about feeding their babies from a bottle made with a dangerous toxic chemical. Bobbi Chase Wilding, BPA coordinator for the National Work Group for Safe Markets, recalled women reacting to the news with a combination of incredulousness and anger. “Women were standing up to retailers and chemical makers, saying, ‘How dare you make a baby bottle with a cheap toxic chemical that hurts my kid’s health,'” said Wilding.
It became painfully clear to parents that the impact on children’s health from exposure to toxic chemicals found in products was not part of the manufacturing decision.
Investigative reporting confirmed what parents suspected: the government was failing to protect the public from dangerous toxic chemicals found in everyday products. Reporters Meg Kissinger and Suzanne Rust of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel launched an investigative series about the presence of chemicals that disrupt hormones, like BPA, in common household products in June 2007. In their analysis of the hundreds of studies on BPA, they found that 80 percent showed BPA caused harm. When they compared study sponsors, those funded by the chemical industry were less likely to find damaging effects.
Kissinger and Rust doggedly reported the BPA issue through 2008, breaking news about the government’s cozy relationship with the chemical industry and the cover-ups of harms to consumers from toxic chemicals. Their work led the way for other state and national media outlets to cover the BPA story, which became one of the top ten green stories of 2008. In recognition of their excellent and significant work, Kissinger and Rust were named as finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.
Retailers Surrender to Mom Power
Manufacturers and retailers got the message – moms were unhappy and media coverage backed them up. Manufacturers moved quickly to satisfy their most important consumer base.
Women, new moms included, account for over 85 percent of household purchases for their families, controlling an estimated $7 trillion in purchasing power, which is half of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. The 83 million moms alone control two trillion dollars in purchasing power. That’s a lot of bottles. Economic research from Marketing to Women found that 50 percent of women want more green choices; 37 percent are likely to pay attention to brands committed to environmental causes.
Retailers also faced new competition from savvy “mompreneurs,” who created a retail niche of online stores dedicated to children’s non-toxic products. Alicia Voorhies joined the ranks, launching TheSoftLanding.com. The response from moms was “overwhelming, ” said Voorhies. “There was clearly a market for products that moms trusted were safe for their kids. And our business grew from recommendations from moms who couldn’t find safe products anywhere else,” she said. In April 2008, Playtex, the baby bottle maker, and Nalgene, makers of reusable water bottles, announced they would switch to BPA-free materials. Wal-Mart and Target announced they would no longer sell bottles made with BPA, following the lead of Whole Foods.
A Path to Power Lined with Baby Bottles
While it was great progress for manufacturers to voluntarily remove BPA from some products, parents wanted more: legislation getting BPA out of children’s products. In 2008, Canada classified BPA as a dangerous substance and declared its intention to prohibit its use in children’s products.
Imagine the power of 83 million moms
The U.S. government continued to parrot the chemical industry’s assurances that BPA was perfectly safe. By 2009, the combination of massive grassroots pressure, a long list of scientific studies raising concerns about BPA’s threat, and the presence of safer alternatives on the market led legislators in 13 states and localities to introduce bills to prohibit the sale of BPA in baby bottles and other children’s products.
The chemical industry association, the American Chemistry Council, aggressively lobbied against BPA restrictions, showing up in statehouses with research concluding BPA wasn’t a “significant risk” to human health.
In eight states and a few localities, neither the industry’s money nor protestations could overcome the strong political support from moms, public health and environmental organizations and legislators from both parties. Bipartisan BPA legislation sailed to victory. A study by SaferStates, a coalition of state environmental health organizations, found BPA bans passed with levels of support at 98 percent.
Ariana Kelly was the National Campaign Director with the non-profit organization MomsRising.org when BPA awareness and activism emerged in force in 2007. “Political and media interest in the BPA in baby bottles campaign became a significant opportunity for women and families to flex their muscles and prove that issues directly affecting the health of children were winners in the political realm,” said Kelly. Building coalitions between mothers’ groups, health and environmental organizations stoked Kelly’s interest in politics, and in 2010, she was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. The BPA in baby bottle issue became a “pathway,” said Kelly.
Home = Environment
Another shift became apparent through the baby bottle battle: People started to think more closely about their homes as an environment that needs protection. Kathy Scoleri of SafeMama.com, an organization catering to parents looking for non-toxic children’s products and tips, thinks the BPA issue “changed everything because it changed the landscape of how people think about the things around them.”
Wilding of the National Work Group for Safe Markets agrees. “Unlike trying to preserve a tract of forest land or rallying people to help a distant community facing a toxic threat, BPA was on your home turf and literally in your baby’s face.”
As a result of the pressure on retailers and legislators generated by moms, the media, and environmental health organizations, the baby bottle market today is thought to be completely BPA free.
Other products found in the home are undergoing similar scrutiny: lead and cadmium in children’s toys and jewelry, toxic chemicals found in household cleaners, and phthalates in personal care products. Some manufacturers and retailers are responding to the market forces, and finding room for non-toxic options on store shelves.
But until the federal government decides that chemicals should be proven safe before being added to products we use, we face decades of campaigns on single chemicals that win skirmishes, but fail to plunge a knife into the heart of the beast. Even BPA, despite the baby-bottle battle, continues to be used in the linings of food and beverage cans — including infant formula cans. This means infant formula is poured from a BPA-lined can into a BPA-free bottle.
But the moblization in the baby-bottle campaign speaks volumes about how our society can revolutionize the way that toxic chemicals are introduced, regulated and sold. Imagine the power of 83 million moms with their two trillion dollars in purchasing power turning upside down the current system that permits chemicals that cause cancer and interfere with our hormones to invade the personal and private space of our homes and bodies. “Mom power” may be just the catalyst that we need to bring about real change.
Margie Kelly is an environmental health advocate and Communications Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition that represents more than 11 million individuals across the nation. She is the former director of Communications at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York and currently lives in Eugene, OR.