An announcement last month by the Campbell Soup Co. that it would stop using BPA in the lining of cans containing its soup and other food products again focused attention on the chemical that studies suggest is harmful to humans. Campbell said it began using an alternative lining in March and would phase out BPA in all its cans by the middle of next year.
This is a welcome announcement, but it inadvertently highlights the shortcomings of U.S. chemical regulations.
In 2011, Maine was hailed as a national leader for passing a law that banned BPA in some containers. BPA is an endocrine disruptor that can interfere with the reproductive, immune and developmental systems. The National Toxicology Program’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction has “ some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.” “Some concern” is midrange on the program’s hierarchy from “negligible” to “serious” concern.
Maine’s BPA ban was the first prohibition to stem from the 2008 Kid-Safe Product Act, a state law that directed the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to develop a list of chemicals used in children’s products that were of high concern. BPA, or bisphenol-A, which is used to harden plastics and coat the inside of metal food containers, was the first chemical identified.
Now, it turns out, some of the chemicals used in place of BPA also are dangerous. This highlights a major shortcoming in U.S. policy regarding chemical safety. Essentially, chemicals are presumed safe until they are proven not to be. BPA has been the subject of extensive study. Its alternatives have not.
The European Commission, on the other hand, relies on the precautionary principle: If a risk to human health is suspected, then chemicals must be proven not to cause harm before they are approved for use.
“The issues and regulation of BPA and the replacements are the story of the failed chemical safety system,” former House Speaker Hannah Pingree, the lead sponsor of the Kids-Safe Products Act, wrote in an email to the BDN. “We weren’t wrong to try to phase out certain flame retardants or BPA given their health impacts. But that the industry replaces these with chemicals that are equally bad makes the game of whack-a-mole very frustrating.”
Because of this uncertainty, Pingree wrote that she is “now among the masses of confused and frustrated parents!”
Without effective federal government oversight, consumers have had to advocate for changes, both in legislative bodies and the marketplace. The day before the Campbell’s announcement, a coalition of health and environmental groups released a report drawing attention to the prevalence of BPA in food cans. Some of the cans that were tested for the national study were purchased in Maine. More than two-thirds of the cans tested were found to contain BPA. One hundred percent of Campbell cans tested positive for BPA, the report said.
There are financial incentives for companies that use BPA and its alternatives in their products to leapfrog the process to chemicals that are known to be safer. Rather than switching to untested alternatives only to find in a couple years that they also also pose risks to human health, these companies should invest in the research needed to identify safer alternatives and switch to them.
Because the risks of BPA are known, ending its use in consumer products makes sense now rather than waiting for testing of its alternatives. At the same time, testing and disclosure of the risks of its alternatives must speed up.