It surfaced by accident, when a rookie lab assistant was too zealous with the cleanser.
Scientist Patricia Hunt was doing genetics studies on female mice when a temp worker cleaning up one day scoured the animals’ cages and water bottles with harsh detergent. When the creatures showed abnormalities in their egg chromosomes, Hunt later linked the changes to a substance released from the plastic by the abrasive and the scrubbing — bisphenol A.
That was 1998. A decade of research and controversy later, Hunt, now a professor at Washington State University, has helped push Washington toward becoming one of a handful of states to ban many products that contain the plastic-hardening agent BPA.
Perhaps as early as Friday, the state Senate is expected to vote on whether to fine manufacturers and retailers that make or sell baby bottles, sippy cups, and cans or jars of infant food that contain the chemical because of health concerns for young children. A similar measure passed the state House 95-1 this week.
Prospects for the bill’s passage are so high that even opponents expect it to become law. But the Legislature is merely one front in a global battle by environmental and health advocates to drive down consumption of the ubiquitous product. And momentum suddenly appears to be on their side.
“A number of us have been increasingly agitated that no one was doing anything,” Hunt said this week. “The change is really nice to see.”
BPA has been around since the early-1960s and is used in everything from the gummy linings of canned foods and soda pop to the hard plastics in reusable sports bottles favored by hikers. It’s found in paper used in pressure-printed receipts from stores. Reporters at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel even found that heating food containers labeled “microwave safe” caused leaching of high doses of BPA.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dismissed concerns for years. The agency held firm as animal studies such as Hunt’s and others showed even exceedingly low doses could affect the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. Studies linked BPA to miscarriages, breast cancer in women and male sexual dysfunction. The FDA didn’t budge.
But the drumbeat from hundreds of studies moved consumers and activists — and industries. Manufacturers began offering BPA-free products. Sales of aluminum hiking bottles took off. Canada last fall moved toward banning the sale of bisphenol A in baby bottles. Massachusetts health officials in August urged pregnant and breast-feeding women to avoid BPA. Connecticut and Minnesota banned some BPA products, and a ban will be considered in Oregon this year.
And, in a stunning reversal, the FDA this month agreed that “some concern” exists for BPA exposure to children, and that it “supports reasonable steps to reduce exposure of infants to BPA in the food supply.” The Obama administration plans to spend $30 million on more human research.
In response, the American Chemistry Council wrote: “Plastics made with BPA contribute safety and convenience to our daily lives because of their durability, clarity and shatter-resistance. Can liners and food-storage containers made with BPA are essential components to helping protect the safety of packaged foods and preserving products from spoilage and contamination.”
But the tide had turned.
While a BPA ban was derailed by the Senate last year — “there was pretty unified opposition from the commercial and industrial and retail associations; that’s a big heavy list for some people to go against,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, who chairs the Health and Long Term Care Committee — opposition this year is more diffuse.
“The American Chemistry Council flew in people to oppose it” this year, Keiser said. But retailers only oppose one element of the bill.
And makers of canned seafood — an industry not affected by legislation being considered in Olympia — are lobbying lawmakers to vote “no” only because they see what could be coming next: rules governing canned goods.
It’s “being put in the mind of consumers that it [canned food] is a dangerous product,” said Randy Ray, a lobbyist for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “And try making a can of salmon to sell in 50 states and have 50 states tell you [you] have to do it differently.”
The Washington Toxics Coalition, the nonprofit that pushed hardest for action in Olympia, was willing to accept that more work could be done on alternative linings for everything from canned soups and beans to diced tomatoes.
“From parents and consumers we hear every day, ‘Why is this stuff still in products?’ ” said coalition spokeswoman Ivy Sager-Rosenthal. “There are promising alternatives, but more research is needed.”
The final fight shaping up this session will be about whether to include reusable sports bottles in the legislation. The House included it, but many in the Senate are reluctant, because of opposition by the Washington Retail Association and others.
Retailers don’t oppose the bill, association President Jan Teague said, just the inclusion of plastic sports bottles because children don’t use them — and lots of stores sell them.
“There’s a lot of general interest when it comes to children, making sure that they are being provided healthy tools when they eat,” Teague said. “But sports bottles makes it too broad.”
Sager-Rosenthal argued that pregnant and nursing mothers use them and could pass contamination to their children.
For the moment, sports bottles aren’t part of the Senate bill.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org