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Bisphenol-A: The Role of the Citizen

Introduction

Citizen Action

Organizations

Power over Retailers

State-Level Change

U.S. Federal BPA Policy

International BPA Policy

Conclusion

Useful Links


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Bisphenol-A: The Role of the Citizen

Citizen Action

            Hundreds of studies have been conducted on BPA and its effects on animals, yet a definitive, unassailable conclusion has yet to emerge.  However, out of the confusion around the complex and contradictory scientific database on BPA, a growing group of concerned scientists and citizens has emerged that wields a considerable amount of power.  Sparking the movement, independent researchers and watchdog groups have lead the attack on the FDA and its policy that assures the safety of BPA.  Reproductive toxicologist Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri is the most prominent of individual researchers.  His research has brought about a kind of toxicology “paradigm inversion.”  This somewhat controversial idea suggests that a chemical’s most adverse effects occur at the smallest dosage levels (see figure 2 below).[1]  This idea goes against common sense and has turned toxicology as it is currently know it on its head.  Furthermore, it casts doubt on much of the research used by the FDA in its policy making because the science behind the FDA’s policy did not test for adverse health effects that could occur at minute exposure levels.  

 

Diagram depicting vom Saals toxicology paradigm shift

    Figure 1: The figure on the left describes the traditional linear toxicology model; as the toxin's dosage increases, the effects from the toxin increase.  The figure on the right describes vom Saal's model; the largest effects of the toxin do not occur at the largest dosages.
    Image courtisy of Environment California.

            Taking up vom Saal’s revolutionary idea, independent researchers began testing for adverse BPA effects in animals at varying dosage levels including minute parts per trillion dosages.  90% of these low-dosage studies conducted by researchers outside of the industry, including the Environmental Working Group and vom Saal himself, concluded that BPA at current human exposure levels poses risks to human development.[2]

Citizen Organizations

       Pivotal to generating widespread consumer awareness of the controversy around the FDA’s BPA policy are environmental watchdog groups such as the Environmental Working Group
and citizen-based environmental advocacy organizations such as Environment California.  These organizations have been conducting their own independent research and then translating their research conclusions into digestible news stories and blogs.  These efforts to reach out to consumers have been successful in communicating the problems of the FDA’s stance to consumers.  These organizations have been successful in educating consumers about the possible health risk associated with the consumption of BPA.  And, once consumers were given this information and made aware of the controversies, they rose up and have been able to wield their own kind of power to create change around the use of BPA.

Citizen Power over Retailers

            This consumer power can be seen acting in two ways.  First, groups that unite consumers and organize them into a cohesive movement have had the ability to amass significant amounts of power to generate change.  The consumer group Ecopledge whose mission is “Uniting citizens to protect the environment from irresponsible corporate behavior,” was a significant player in pressuring the water-bottle manufacturer Nalgene to phase out the use of BPA in its products.[3]  Ecopledge’s Detox Nalgene campaign used consumer and retailer organizing to educate Nalgene users about BPA and applied pressure to Nalgene by sending mass quantities of emails, written letters, and messages tucked inside old Nalgene bottles.[4] Ecopledge succeeded when Nalgene announced on April 18, 2008 that in response to consumer demand, Nalgene will phase out production of its line of polycarbonate containers that include BPA over the next several months.  Steven Silverman, general manager of the Nalgene business stated on Nalgene’s website, “Based on all available scientific evidence, we continue to believe that Nalgene products containing BPA are safe for their intended use. However, our customers indicated they preferred BPA-free alternatives and we acted in response to those concerns.”[5]

            The second way consumer power is being wielded is through their voting power as they “vote” in consumer polls by purchasing items that they support while refraining from buying items they do not.  The pressure created by this has lead both Canadian and American Wal-Marts to recently phase out the sale of baby bottles, pacifiers, sippy cups, food containers, and water bottles containing BPA.  Already, before this ban, retailers have reported that BPA-free baby bottle purchases have gone up five times despite the fact they cost four times as much as bottles containing BPA.[6]  

            In response to both Nalgene and Wal-Mart’s decisions to no longer sell products containing BPA, the plastic and BPA industry was outraged.  In an April 18, 2008 press conference, a representative of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group working on behalf of BPA producers, angrily said in response of the action taken by retailers, “The retailers did not need to do that and take the place of the regulators.” [7]

            The successes of citizen groups and consumer power in forcing distributors to halt the sale of products that contain BPA is significant in light of the fact that FDA policy still allows for the use of BPA. 

Change on the State Level

            Because of inaction on the federal level, actions are being taken on the state level to set bans on BPA containing products that are indented for use by infants and children or when safer alternative to BPA are available.  Currently, Minnesota, California, Maryland, Maine, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York have pending state bills banning BPA.

            Minnesota’s campaign to ban BPA has been driven by the Health Legacy Coalition.[8]  Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has been working with Health Legacy through its own campaign – Detox Minnesota – to get the 2008 Minnesota state legislature to pass a bill known as the Safe Baby Products Act.  This bill would phase out bisphenol-a (among a few other known toxins) from products intended for children under age 3.[9] 

            To create public awareness and support for this bill, MPIRG’s campaign has primarily reached out to college and university, but it is also currently working to create more widespread awareness by writing op-ed pieces (click here for recent MPIRG newspaper article) in local newspapers and using phone banks to educate citizens.  In addition to simply creating BPA awareness among citizens, MPIRG’s campaign also asks the public to contact state and local representatives about their concerns around BPA policy. [10]

            The message of this campaign is simple and does not delve into the controversy around the science behind the FDA’s decision, nor does it look into possible corporate involvement and corruption.  Instead, to generate awareness and concern, and to call citizens to action, the message relayed by MPIRG’s Detox Minnesota campaign is that “the ban on bisphenol-a is necessary because BPA is a known toxic chemical that is unnecessarily used in millions of household product, that people, especially the most vulnerable children, come into contact with daily.”[11]

            While this simple message holds truth and is enough understanding to spur many citizens to action, the remainder of this website will delve deeper into the complex controversy surrounding the FDA’s continued support of BPA that citizens are responsible for shedding light upon.



[2] Layton, Lyndsey. "Studies on Chemical in Plastics Questioned." Washington Post 27 Apr. 2008. 28 Apr. 2008 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/26/AR2008042602126_pf.html>.

[3] Ecopledge. 20 Apr. 2008 <http://www.ecopledge.com/>.

[4] Detox Nalgene." Ecopledge. 2006. 5 Apr. 2008.  <http://www.ecopledge.com/detoxnalgene.asp?id2=27717>. 

[5] "News." Nalgene-Outdoor. 18 Apr. 2008. 28 Apr. 2008 <http://www.nalgene-outdoor.com/Index.html>.

[6] "Plastic Bottles Pose Risk." ABC. 18 Apr. 2008. 27 Apr. 2008 <http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=4683891&page=1>.

[7] "Plastic Bottles Pose Risk." ABC. 18 Apr. 2008. 27 Apr. 2008 <http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=4683891&page=1>.

[8] "Protective Policies." Health Legacy. 28 Apr. 2008 <http://www.healthylegacy.org/protectivepolicies.cfm>.

[9] Boik, Thomas. "Phase Out the Toxins, Phase in Clean Alternatives." Pioneer Press 2 May 2008. 3 May 2008 <http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_9135344?nclick_check=1>.

[10]Boik, Thomas. Personal interview. 26 Apr. 2008.

[11] Boik, Thomas. Personal interview. 26 Apr. 2008.



 

Frederick Vom Saal Portrait
Image 2: Frederick vom Saal
Detox Nalgene Logo
Image 3: Detox Nalgene's Logo






Last updated:  5/8/2008

 


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