INSIGHT: Industry needs new BPA strategy

29 October 2008 15:10  [Source: ICIS news]

By Ben Lefebvre

Canada bans BPA use in baby bottlesHOUSTON (ICIS news)--For any chemical company composing a list of its Christmas wishes, the disappearance of the bisphenol A (BPA) controversy is probably near the top of the page.

They may be in for a disappointment, however. BPA is going to stay in the news, no matter how good suppliers have been over the course of the year.

Chemical companies have been beating the drums for about 10 years now that BPA, a necessary ingredient in polycarbonate (PC) products, is safe.

Despite the steady release of studies showing at least hints of links to diabetes, cancer and developmental problems in foetuses, the industry has intoned a familiar mantra: more research is needed . 

But with the latest revelation that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) based its decision that BPA was safe on consultants with strong ties to the chemical industry - including Steven Hentges of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) - an already wary public has decided it would rather not trust the chemical sector when it comes to this particular issue.

“Who says that science isn't for sale? Here's hoping the FDA gets it right, but I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to avoid BPA, from not using polycarbonate plastic to skipping canned foods and beverages,” a blogger at the Smart Mama website wrote on 24 October.

A quick scan of the internet reveals this is not a lone voice.

The ACC said it has done nothing wrong, and that the industry is “a stakeholder, just like everyone else” in the process.

It has spent at least $1m (€790,000) in funding reports on BPA and at least another $1m in its successful fight against a bill in California that would have banned PC products for infants.

But while the trade association has spent millions of dollars to ensure chemical companies can continue to sell products containing BPA unfettered, it has become clear that while they may be winning (or at least drawing out) the legislative battle, the industry may be losing the public relations war.

Most of the controversy surrounds PC food-contact containers for infants. Buyers who have decided they cannot trust the industry are turning to glass baby bottles and other alternatives, while retailers such as Wal Mart have purged PC water bottles and the like from their shelves.

Eastman Chemical may be the only company to have benefited from the controversy when it introduced water bottles made of its BPA-free Tritan monomer.

David Rosner, professor of sociomedical science and history at Columbia University, said the industry had to realise that as the general public are increasingly sensitive to the presence of chemicals in everyday products, holding out that more research is needed is no longer a winning strategy.

“They have to acknowledge a paradigm shift among toxicologists and the public as to what is acceptable risk,” Rosner said.

"We’re undergoing a profound social discussion on the importance and safety of a whole range of materials that we couldn’t even measure before."

Most PC and BPA suppliers continue to say publicly that BPA causes no detrimental effects and that consumers’ concerns are overblown.

The ACC has deemed a growing number of reports inconclusive, including those by the National Toxicology Program and the Journal of the American Medical Association, that have indicated BPA may damage health.

At the same time, it has trumpeted its own studies showing that the chemical is perfectly safe.

Sarah Vogel, a fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation who has studied the history, politics and science of BPA, said that this sort of blanket reaction has made the public increasingly cynical about the chemical industry.

“The industry's response of throwing money at the problem with the hopes that it will just go away has backed it into a corner where they are losing the public's trust,” Vogel said.

"This is why consumers have begun making their own risk decisions by dumping polycarbonate bottles and demanding safer alternatives."

Vogel added that for the industry to gain some credence on the issue, it would have to concede the possibility that BPA may cause health detriments and stop manufacturing PC products for children, infants and pregnant women. It would also have to provide funds for research conducted by independent laboratories.

Having said that, however, Vogel doubted they would.

BPA is too much of a money maker, and any admission that it could cause health problems could open companies to similar charges against other commercial products, she said.

There are signs that the industry is fighting a losing battle.

On 17 October, Canadian health agency Health Canada said that although BPA’s effects on health were still unclear, it would start drafting rules that would ban PC baby bottles .

In the US, the influential House Committee on Energy and Commerce is in the midst of a feud with the FDA and has indicated it would like to see children’s products free of BPA and epoxy resins.

On the issue of BPA, the chemical industry is taking much the same stance as it did when it upheld the safety of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) in the 1960s, and vinyl chloride and benzene in the 1970s. 

As 2009 approaches, producers may want to make their own New Year pledges: more pro-active solutions for the BPA problem and less money for preaching what the public clearly does not believe.

($1 = €0.79) 

For more information on BPA and PC visit ICIS chemical intelligence
To discuss issues facing the chemical industry, go to ICIS connect

By: Ben Lefebvre
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