Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 11, No. 2, 2012
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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Pico Iyer
Edward Said
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Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

lingering concerns over plastics

Betsy L. Chunko


Betsy Chunko is currently an American research fellow at the Institute for Cultural Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

In March 2012, Campbell’s Soup announced it would stop packaging their soups in cans containing high levels of bisphenol-A, or BPA, a chemical endocrine disruptor. Thanks in part to a massive Cans Not Cancer campaign launched by the Breast Cancer Fund, the Campbell company has vowed to phase out the use of BPA in its can linings.

Campbell’s is just one of many companies to come under fire for reports of high BPA levels in its packaging. A rather ubiquitous chemical compound, BPA is commonly employed to harden plastics, though it has numerous other uses -- one of which is related to the production of the epoxy resins that line the inside of most food and beverage containers.

Some animal studies have found that BPA accelerates puberty and increases cancer risk. The chemical has also been tied to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes in adults. The majority of BPA’s bad press has been related to its questionable safety in products made for and marketed to children.

In April 2008, the government of Canada took action. After seven years of study, it listed BPA as a toxic substance under its Environmental Protection Act. The country introduced regulations to ban selling, advertising, manufacturing, or importing baby bottles made with BPA-related plastics. As a result, most of Canada’s largest retailers swiftly removed all food-related BPA products from their shelves.

Meanwhile, questions surrounding BPA-use started heating up Stateside. On May 13, 2009, Chicago’s City Council unanimously adopted a measure making it the first American city to ban the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups manufactured with the chemical. The measure was driven by what Chicago officials called federal regulators’ failure to take action on a grave public health issue.

Minnesota and Connecticut became the first two states to sign BPA regulations into law. In 2010, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Wisconsin likewise banned BPA from young children’s products. Also in 2010, Vermont and Washington passed similar but more aggressive legislation to ban BPA in sports bottles and reusable food and beverage containers.

That same year, the United States Food and Drug Administration announced it would spend $30 million to investigate possible links between BPA exposure and cancer. To many, this represented a small victory, since it essentially reversed the FDA’s earlier draft risk assessment claiming that levels found in products on the American market appeared to be safe. In October of 2008, a scientific panel of advisers to the FDA condemned that initial conclusion. From 2010, the agency’s website has proclaimed, “recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.”

Despite a lack of scientific consensus, companies such as Wal-Mart, CVS and Babies R Us, as well as many leading makers of infant formula, have been selling BPA-free baby products for years already in response to mounting consumer pressures. Other major retailers, like Nalgene, have since removed BPA-containing products from their full line of wares. They cite solidarity with consumers who don’t want to risk exposing their children, or themselves, to any level of BPA.

Yet the skeptics haven’t completely won out. Some have criticized Walmart’s self-imposed BPA-in-baby-bottles-ban; Marc Gunther of Fortune Magazine has argued that such moves from retail giants are bids to assume status as a populist FDA. The American Chemistry Council and other industry groups still maintain that there is little evidence that the chemical harms children. They have lobbied strenuously against bans on BPA, citing global consensus from research scientists and government bodies proving current levels of BPA to be within a safe range. Industry websites ( and ( continue to defend BPA. Furthermore, not all states have been successful in passing anti-BPA legislation. Bills to ban BPA failed to gain Senate approval in California and Oregon.

Regardless of where the individual falls in the debate, country-wide retail moves to initiate self-imposed BPA bans are still largely tied to larger trends in consumer confidence. Parental fears about the potential toxicity, or ‘unnaturalness,’ of their children’s environments are fueled by a pervasive cultural fire. Books such as Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things both capitalize on and fuel the flames of doubt. The authors, environmentalists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, decided to inhale and ingest a host of things that are part of our everyday lives and test the effects. Their own bodies became the reference point to tell the story of pollution in our modern world, exposing the corrupt corporate penchant for adding things that will make us sick to their stock, and gutless government officials who turn a blind eye. The bottom line? To prove that we are poisoned in our everyday lives by malicious capitalist forces.

The book is scary -- and that’s the point. The anti-chemical movement is taking on Crusade-like proportions. The message is clear: You’re either on the side of decent American families, the little guy, the Good . . . or you’re on the side of corporate greed and corruption. The move to purge BPA containing products -- as well as those with a host of other suspicion-raising culprits, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) -- is getting some serious star power as well. Jessica Alba recently began a subscription service for nontoxic baby products, “The Honest Company.” Her website offers the rather earnest if credulous pledge: “no bad chemicals.”

But how far must families go -- and where are the limits? called Smith and Lourie’s book “Enviro-porn.” The review’s author, Trevor Butterworth, cites a persistent tendency for some writers of popular scientific literature to create “plausible scare stories.” It all boils down, he further argues, to one, sad fact: “To the dismay of toxicologists, enviroporn is rampant in the reporting of chemical risks, because, let’s face it, real chemistry is desperately unsexy.”

Indeed, willingly exposing oneself to potentially harmful chemicals smacks of the ridiculous and extremist. Then again, who’s to say that the book’s deeper point, increased awareness, is a wash? The reviewer for The Washington Post argued: “Slow Death by Rubber Duck is hard-hitting in a way that turns your stomach and yet also instills hope for a future in which consumers make safer, more informed choices and push their governments to impose tougher regulations on the chemicals all around us.”

No argument against that. But in his recent New York Times article, Michael Tortorello interviews a lawyer and women’s health advocate who admitted to tossing most of her cosmetics and interrogating merchants by email over the potential toxicity of their products once she became a mother. The point here seems clear: As we root out monsters in the murky darkness of contemporary life, we’re in danger of becoming obsessed by the shadows all around. Weren’t lead paint and asbestos bad enough? Now the enemy is multiplying, and he’s not just in the walls anymore. From furniture to food containers, baby bottles to credit cards, he’s all around us -- a constant companion in our daily lives.

There are many threads to tease out: public health campaigns, mass-media madness, eco-marketing trends and a frenzied environmental movement. The vacillating battle against BPA and similar curious compounds is fueled, above all, by a growing sentiment in our country: How do we protect ourselves from the dark side of manufacturing? And more pressing: If we don’t protect ourselves and our families, who will? What people really fear is the seemingly unhindered proliferation of chemicals in the market-place -- and the apparent lack of options, the no-go of opting out of the cycle of mainstream consumerism that riddles our households with products made by companies without an eye toward stringently safe manufacturing practices.

Another problem is how little we seem to definitively know. We don’t know enough, for instance, about how thousands of chemicals may interact in the human body. And while high exposure to BPA is a pretty certain health threat, we don’t know what levels of BPA-exposure are actually safe over the long-term, for children or adults. When so much seems like scientific conjecture -- that is, when it looks like the jury is still out -- what choice do the health-minded have but to worry, worry, worry?

After all, there’s a big difference between citing current levels of BPA in American consumer products as relatively safe versus completely safe. Case in point: The 2008 Canadian review found “negligible risk” from BPA to those older than 18 months. Obviously, that wasn’t good enough to prevent adults from steering clear of the BPA-bandwagon themselves. Consumers in the U.S. are sending the message that negligible isn’t nil -- i.e., until conclusive data is available, prevention in the form of self-protection may be the order of the day.

The tricky part -- balancing concern with common sense -- remains open to debate.

Resources for consumers:

Consumers can take small, easy steps to limit their exposure to common sources of BPA. American consumer plastics use a numbered system, also called the “resin identification code.” When it comes to drinking water, choose a plastic bottle that does not leach by checking the container’s number code: If it is a #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene), or a #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene), or a #5 PP (polypropylene), your bottle is fine. Note, though, that water is generally sold in #1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles, which are only recommended for one time use.

Resources from the American Chemistry Council:

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) guide to safe drinking water:

To learn more about which plastic water bottles don’t leach chemicals:


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Nothing in this review stated the amount that needs to be consumed on a daily, weekly or yearly basis to be labeled as potentially unsafe. We have the technology to measure the amount of chemicals but that does not mean the presence of some chemicals is hazardous to one's health (parts per billion)? And we cannot assume what happens in animal studies will occur in human bodies.



Health articles:
Oceans Drowning in Plastic

Cell Phone Users Beware
Chicken Belittled
Roil Over Olive Oil
Teflon and Your Toxicity
Omnivore's Dilemma
Slice and Salmon Lice
Steroid Hysteria
The Soya Bean Conspiracy
Can Red Meat Take the Heat?

Drug Companies Don't Care


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