The Latest Toxin Activists Want to Ban

By ACSH Staff — Jun 24, 2009
This article first appeared on

This article first appeared on

The "toxin du jour" these days is bisphenol A, otherwise known as BPA. Environmental activists claim BPA harms babies as it dissolves out of the sides of baby bottles and sippy cups, causing everything from cancer to learning disabilities and even obesity. Spurred by consumer groups, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal wants Coca-Cola, Del Monte and other companies investigated for trying to stop anti-BPA legislation.

In fact, BPA has been used safely for about 60 years to make plastic bottles hard and shatter-proof, for the coatings of metal food containers and even in cellphones and medical devices. Nonetheless, the California Senate recently passed a law to ban the sale of sippy cups and baby bottles that contain BPA, and Chicago recently banned such products from city shelves.

There are two distinct ways of looking at the hysteria about BPA and the quest to purge it from our universe.

First, we can take the rational, scientific approach. There is no evidence that BPA in consumer products ever harmed a child or adult. The FDA has confirmed the safety of BPA in consumer products, as have scientific bodies around the world. The levels of BPA that may leach into food or liquid are so incredibly small that they can barely be measured.

In fact, even the cautious Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out that merely detecting a substance in our bodies does not mean that it's harmful or toxic. The only "evidence" that BPA is a hazard comes from high-dose animal studies (which have little relevance for humans) and from studies that measure BPA in urine.

But we can detect minute levels of virtually any chemical in blood and urine, and the presence of such an amount is not synonymous with a hazard. BPA as a health hazard is best described as only a "phantom risk."

But rational, scientific facts have taken a back seat in the debate about BPA and health. That brings us to the second, purely emotional case against the toxin.

Psychiatrists have long told us that we fear what we do not understand and cannot see. Further, parents are instinctively on high alert against potential threats to their infants and children. Thus, if an activist group makes a claim that BPA--or almost any other substance--in bottles poses an imminent danger to an innocent baby, the "fear factor" takes over.

Mom and dad are not familiar with this chemical; they can hardly pronounce it; they cannot see it; thus they fear it. And now they are perfect targets for manipulation by the toxic terrorists. Scientists or FDA officials--and certainly industry spokespeople--who dismiss the scare sound callous and unreliable.

Consider this further irrational dimension of the calls to ban BPA: Few people ever ask what the alternative to BPA would be. In their irrational state, they are willing to purge this chemical--a product with a decades-long safety record--from substances they use and instead accept some unknown, untested substitute without even asking what it might be and what its safety profile is.

Perhaps it is time we started responding to the public's irrational fears differently than we do to rational fears. For example, if you have a fear of flying--not a phobia, but a mild, rational concern--you might have your mind changed by a slew of statistics showing that flying from New York to Los Angeles is far safer than covering the same territory by car. We could reason with you on this issue, discussing your odds of injury and death in each scenario. You would then, most likely, choose to fly.

But a national panic about a "chemical"--be it Alar on apples 20 years ago or phthalates (plastic softeners used in rubber duckies and other products) and BPA today--is a different story.

Irrational fears of the sort conjured up in parents by weird-sounding chemicals do not respond well to a truckload of scientific facts. So what might work?

For one, inform parents that their instinct to protect their children is normal, indeed admirable--but subject to manipulation by agenda-driven activists.

And state the obvious. There is no end in sight to the anti-chemical witch hunt against "toxins" in products. Once BPA is banned, the activists will move onto another scare: Are there trace levels of dioxin in the paper cups your toddler drinks out of? Ban paper cups!

Could there be lead in the playground sand box? Close all sandboxes! If in five years the alternative to BPA is shown to cause cancer in rodents--well, ban that too.

Finally, underscore the fact that chemicals like BPA, which have been used for decades with no deleterious health consequences, may well be safer than hastily introduced alternatives.

Irrational fears need to be recognized for what they are--and treated with compassion and understanding but also a big dose of reality. Caring, loving parents have become victims of fear mongers and that, certainly, is one danger about which they deserve to be warned.

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