Bottom lines: Stating the business case for chemicals policy reform

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

This week’s issue of Business Week has an intriguing cover story titled “Look Who’s Stalking Wal-Mart,” with a cute cover graphic.  It’s all about the latest retail trend in downmarketing.  But in the same issue is another piece that might well be titled “Look Who Retailers are Stalking” – with the “who” being the chemical industry and the why being the need for meaningful chemical policy reform.

The BizWeek piece (“Getting to the Bottom of Plastic Bottle Risks”) does a great job of laying out the business case for major reform of our chemicals safety policies.  It opens by recounting the now-all-too-common plight of a small retailer of kids’ products trying to achieve what should be a simple task, but isn’t:  being able to ensure its customers that the products it sells are safe.

Citing bisphenol A (BPA) as the “poster child” for what’s wrong with our current policies, the article highlights the rapidly expanding battlefield emerging between chemicals and plastics makers and companies down the supply chain from them – product manufacturers and retailers – who are often dependent on their suppliers’ chemicals, but also increasingly critical of the lack of information disclosure and lack of evidence of safety for those chemicals.

A prominent voice for reform from the retail community, Roger McFadden of Staples, sums it up nicely in a quote from the article:

“This [industry’s failure to be able to answer basic safety questions] is what happens when effective policies are not implemented.  I hope this is a wake-up call.”

The article goes on to point out that “The current federal regulatory system probably served those [chemical] manufacturers’ short-term interests by requiring them to do very little to assess safety,” and then quotes yours truly as saying:  “But that has come back to bite them.”

The article’s focus on BPA is well-deserved:  First synthesized in 1891, knowledge of BPA’s estrogenic properties dates all the way back to the 1930s – but appears to have been ignored or forgotten as its uses in epoxy resins and shatter-proof plastics were discovered and commercialized on a truly massive scale.  (For a great article summarizing the history and politics surrounding BPA, see Sarah Vogel’s paper in the American Journal of Public Health “The Politics of Plastic:  The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A ‘Safety’.”)

Six billion pounds of BPA are now produced annually, and the chemical has found its way into everything from food can linings to cash register receipts, not to mention baby bottles.  Meanwhile, the chemical has also found its way from those products into the bodies of 93% of all Americans.

As Gary Ginsberg, a toxicologist in the Connecticut Department of Public Health is quoted saying:

“We’ve known since the 1930s it is hormonally active, yet it shows up in everyone’s canned food.  Why hasn’t the light bulb gone off before, just to make sure it’s safe?”

Good question, one that I hope a real and comprehensive reform of our chemicals policies can start to bring about.  Now that would serve up a bottom line we could all embrace.

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  1. Posted December 1, 2009 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Where can I find in-depth information on the BPA and it’s relation to hormones..I there a ongoing study of the possibility of a cause of cancer.

  2. Posted December 2, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Karen Ann:

    Thanks for your comment and question. While there is a truly exploding literature on BPA, a decent one-stop shop for more information is the BPA page on the website of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). As you may know, NIEHS just recently announced its intent to fund $30 million in research on BPA over the next two years, targeted at answering key questions that will narrow the uncertainty surrounding the magnitude of human health risk posed by BPA.

    Here is the URL for the NIEHS BPA webpage, which contains links to factsheets and other resources: