Saturday, August 9, 2008
Industry fights effort to ban chemical in baby products
State official, scientist criticize a chemical-industry backed campaign to keep potentially dangerous baby products on the market.
By JENNIFER MUIR
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
A chemical industry-backed lobbying group has mounted a statewide campaign to convince Californians that a potentially dangerous compound found in baby products and canned goods is safe, and warns that if efforts to ban it are successful, "going to a grocery store may never be the same."
State officials and scientists say the ads are misleading and designed to scare consumers into keeping products that could harm children on the market.
The campaign, paid for by industry trade group the American Chemistry Council, urges voters to voice opposition to a Senate bill that would outlaw the chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), in products made for young kids.
Dozens of independent scientific studies have suggested that the chemical could cause everything from cancer to reproductive and behavioral problems, although others have found products containing BPA to be safe.
Mailers and ads appearing in newspapers across the state depict an empty grocery cart in the desert and warn that if BPA is banned, canned food and beverages might be vulnerable to spoilage or contamination. Food products, the ads say, could disappear from grocery store shelves even though "rigorous scientific reviews" conclude the products are safe.
"Maybe that's why no other state in the country bans BPA," the ads say.
But experts say that pitch is misleading in several respects.
The bill wouldn't regulate the majority of food found on grocery store shelves. It only restricts BPA in products for kids ages 3 and younger, such as formula cans, sippy cups, baby bottles and glass jars of baby food, said Tracy Fairchild, a spokeswoman for the bill's sponsor Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco.
"It's designed to deceive consumers" Fairchild said. "This is toxic to the political process. It's fine to oppose, but you have to tell the truth."
The ads also imply the chemical is widely considered safe, even though U.S. agencies disagree about its potential dangers, this year a dozen U.S. states considered BPA-related legislation and in April, Canadian regulators declared it would be deemed a
"dangerous substance," according to news reports.
A representative for the chemical council, which represents 137 chemical producers nationwide, said the bill's language was vague and and could result in the ban extending to all canned food because three year olds often eat the same foods as adults.
"We do believe that the bill could potentially affect a wide range of products," said Steve Hentges, director of the ACC's Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group. "And it could extend quite a bit beyond that to containers and serving dishes -- anything used to feed a child."
Hentges also defended the chemical's safety and said that studies that have found dangers have "no consistent repeatable findings."
BPA is at the heart of a multi-billion dollar industry and is most commonly used as a building block of plastic products such as water and baby bottles and coatings that line food containers. Some seven billion pounds are manufactured each year, according to experts and news reports.
Potential dangers of the chemical were first identified more than a decade ago by Frederick vom Saal, a reproductive scientist at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Since then, more than 100 studies into the compound's effects have been conducted by university and government scientists.
In April, the Washington Post reviewed 116 studies from 1997 through 2005 and found that, of those funded by the government, about 90 percent showed a health effect linked to BPA, while none of the industry-funded studies found an effect.
Scientists such as vom Saal, the nation's leading BPA researcher, have linked the chemical to a host of ailments in lab animals, including breast and prostate cancer, brain and liver damage, obesity and diabetes. They believe the chemical could cause similar harm in humans, and that children are most vulnerable.
In the past year, a National Institutes of Health panel, The National Toxicology Program and Canada's top drug and chemical regulatory agency have all issued reports expressing concerns about the chemical's safety. Wal-Mart and Toys 'R Us already have taken steps to pull products containing BPA from their shelves.
The Food and Drug Administration continues to deem the compound safe for use in food and medical products, but has dispatched a task force to review the research that suggests otherwise. The FDA largely relied on two studies funded by an industry trade group to determine that BPA is safe, the Washington Post reported.
The FDA declined to comment for this story but provided a transcript from its testimony about BPA before congress in June: "Although our review of the NTP (National Toxicology Program) reports is continuing, a large body of available evidence indicates that food contact materials containing BPA currently on the market are safe, and that exposure levels to BPA from these materials, including exposure to infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects."
Last month, the European Union Food Safety Authority reaffirmed a previous opinion that products containing BPA are safe.
While no other state bans the substance, some 30 bills relating to BPA were considered in 12 states. Most would either phase out or prohibit the chemical in children's products, according to a legislative analysis of the proposed ban. Hentges said that proposals in all but two of those states – California and New Jersey – have either died or been voted down.
So far in 2008, the ACC has spent more than $2.2 million lobbying the government on behalf of the chemical industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Hentges said the group spends considerable money funding million-dollar studies into BPA, which he says are accurate and consistently prove products containing BPA are safe.
Hentges did not know how much the group has spent on its campaign against SB 1713, which included print ads (including a full-page ad in the Orange County Register), direct mailers, pre-recorded phone calls and radio ads. The purpose, he said, is to inform consumers about what could happen if the product is banned. Without the coating in canned products, the metal could corrode. No product exists, he says, that's as effective at protecting the food.
"If you're going to replace them, you have to find something that works, and that's not so easy because you have a wide range of food types and cans," Hentges said. "There really is potential for products to leave the shelf. There is no good alternative right now. Not that will work across the board."
Vom Saal said Friday that the notion that alternatives to BPA don't exist is "blatantly false." An analysis of the bill says that Japanese companies use a BPA-free product (polyethylene terephthalate) to line cans and identifies one U.S. company that uses a BPA-free coating when canning beans.
"This kind of stuff just drives people in science crazy," he said. "(Scientists) live in a world where if you don't tell the truth, you're excommunicated. From the tobacco industry on down, corporations figure that anything they do to protect their profits is O.K."