BPA in the NY Times

NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff writes about the ubiquity of BPA in our bodies, plus a gaggle of new studies linking BPA exposure to a variety of abnormalities in test animals. If you've been following the BPA Saga (including this impressive bit of corporate nastiness by Sigg), you'll see that the latest research keeps upping the ante on the potential ill effects of BPA exposure in our food and water.

It always seems to me that the American Way of doing business really fails when it comes to protecting people from unknowns like chemical toxicity in products. The presumption in our system is that something is innocent (ie safe) until proven otherwise, and "proof" of either the legal or scientific variety is stunningly difficult to come by when you factor in the nature of statistical Randomness—not to mention the far-too-cozy relationship between industry and regulators, or the fact that the only organizations with enough money to fund large studies on these chemicals are the very companies who sell them.

I've always thought the big issue with chemical exposure is not the impact of any one chemical, but rather the rich brew Americans are exposed to only a daily basis as we use our computers, fire-safe rugs, clothing, and furniture, and all the other products of the modern age. What interactions and multiplying effects arise directly as a consequence are anyone's guess—and virtually impossible to establish via any sort of replicable study.

My guess is future generations will be baffled by our cavalier attitude toward chemical exposures. And they'll probably have the data, at long last, to show just exactly what the impact of something like BPA actually is. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if we didn't have to wait a hundred years or more before our various industries switched to safer alternatives?

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Robert K November 10, 2009 at 2:48 pm

You say that "the American Way" of doing business is to assume something is safe until proven otherwise, but I would argue that is not specific to our culture. Or even a cultural issue at all. The principle of falsifiability would seem to say that it's impossible to prove a product is irrefutably safe. Sort of like trying to prove there's no such thing as a black swan. That said, given how litigious our society is I suspect we hold companies to a higher standard than most nations.

I know this is naive but in an ideal world, it's that risk of litigation that is an important motivator for companies to verify the safety of their products. The fiscal and social impact for companies that voluntarily discover and disclose safety issues is dramatically reduced than for those that don't.

Andy November 10, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Jeez, you're in a contrarian mood today! Next you'll be telling me smoking prevents Alzheimer's. Surely the impossibility of absolute proof doesn't preclude testing a product's safety prior to releasing it? And why not find ways for testing to be done by an independent agency or organization, rather than the corporation trying to sell the product?

I think you're greatly overestimating the impact of fears of litigation. First of all, companies can easily budget payoff and hush money from the earnings of successful products. And don't forget your principle of falsifiability cuts both ways...especially when you're a lone individual standing in a courtroom trying to prove a case against a well-prepared multinational corporate defendant. Bah I say!!

Robert K November 10, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Contrarian? No, not really. I'll readily agree that chemical toxicity is an issue, and the BPA issue is a great example of that. And also that companies could do a better job of testing products. But to link these two by saying this is an artifact of the American Way of doing business? Seems a bit of a stretch. I don't see where "the American Way" ties into this.

For starters, SIGG is a Swiss company, not American. And the problem isn't that SIGG or any other company wasn't adequately safety testing their products. In fact, there's a long history of scientific scrutiny into the effects of BPA that these companies and the public have had available. It seems like the problems center more around how our government (ala the EPA) failed to properly account for these studies in industry regulation, and the ethical behavior of corporations (regardless of nationality) when presented with data that affects their bottom line.

When it comes to "proving" something is safe, corporations and governments alike are put in a tough bind. There is an expectation among consumers that products they buy are "safe" in an absolute sense, but establishing "absolute certainty" about something - especially when it comes to issues like long-term toxicity effects - can be extremely difficult due in part to the principal of falsifiability. It becomes exponentially more time-consuming and expensive. So much so that companies often have little choice but to either "play it safe" and watch their competitors gain an insurmountable advantage in the market, or "do the best they can and see how the chips fall."

I'd certainly be curious to hear your thoughts on how the government and/or corporations could have done a better job at protecting consumers from the risks of BPA.

Andy November 10, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Well, as much as I'd love to trounce you with my flawless logic, maybe it'd be more productive for me to back up and muse a little about why I find the BPA story so interesting. My big assumption (and it remains that) is that we are eventually going to learn that BPA is a very nasty chemical that has no business being in our water and food containers and anywhere else where it can leach into our bodies. My second assumption is that evidence of BPA's nastiness isn't hard to come by, as the slew of new studies all suggest.

So the question is, what happened? How did this chemical become so ubiquitous in American products and therefore within our bodies? I suspect that story will be a telling one, and I hope it leads to changes in the relationships between regulators, lobbyists, and industry.

I suppose we could lament the lack of wariness on the part of consumers, which certainly plays a part in this saga, but to be honest I don't believe it is the consumer's job to ask, for example, "Is this baby bottle I'm purchasing actually safe for babies?" There is a presumption, after all, that the FDA isn't totally incompetent.

But alas, I'm sticking to my position that America, contrary to our self image, isn't always a leader when it comes to product safety. Europe banned lead from paint in residences in 1921. Safety-first America waited until 1977!

Scott November 11, 2009 at 8:50 am

What concerns me more than BPA is its replacement. Chemical companies didn't get together and maliciously decide to put a toxic chemical in food and drink packaging just to screw the consumer (Sigg's overt misdirection notwithstanding); they used BPA because it is one of the few materials that both produces a hard, durable polymer and is not overtly toxic (as in, won't immediately kill you from exposure to small doses). What replaced it? What is Nalgene using to make hard polymers now? And in five years will the story still be the same as with BPA?

As for the FDA's incompetence, the fact that Aspartame (Nutrasweet), a known carcinogen and neurotoxin continues to remain on the market pretty much solidifies that. Caveat emptor.

I'm going to stay with my polyurethane bottles for the forseeable future. Lightweight, reasonably safe (tested for decades now in many many bottles), reasonably freeze resistance; there just doesn't seem to be a reason to not use them now.

Andy November 11, 2009 at 8:57 am

Yeah, I'm with you on that Scott. I wonder all the time whether the new BPA-free plastics are substituting something that's actually safer, or whether it's just "BPA free". I definitely prefer the known and small risks of HDPE for water bottles. As for the new plastics...who really knows? If there's one thing the BPA story proves, it's that it isn't hard for disruptive chemicals to get past today's regulatory hurdles and into our products.