Michael Potter, who runs a company that cans organic foods in Michigan, has a problem. He doesn’t want to sell Eden Food’s products in cans lined with epoxy resin containing bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic estrogen linked to a variety of potential health hazards.
But, as he told Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton, trying to find out what’s in the linings he buys is an exercise in frustration – even though he pays for the stuff.
“Inevitably, you end up speaking to a large law firm inside the Beltway that says you don’t have the right to know,” Potter lamented.
It sounds hard to believe, but Potter is correct. Makers of canned foods can’t necessarily find out if certain chemicals, including BPA, are in the liners of the cans they sell to millions of people every day.
In the case of BPA, of course, it doesn’t help that until recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considered the plastics chemical to be “generally regarded as safe” in food. That gave companies a pass on having to disclose whether BPA was in their cans. FDA made an about-face last month, intensifying its investigation of BPA as a food contaminant, warning the public to avoid BPA-contaminated food and encouraging industry to search for alternate can linings and other BPA-infused packaging.
Making things worse, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) hamstrings the downstream industries that do care about the chemicals in their products. For 33 years, that law has given industry free rein to lace the environment, and people’s blood, with an untold number of persistent chemicals, even as diseases associated with many of these contaminants skyrocketed in the U.S. population.
Under this outdated 1976 law, chemical makers have been pretty much free to cloak the identity of thousands of toxic chemicals — including their makeup, possible health risks, amounts produced and how they are used. All manufacturers have to do to hide basic information about a chemical is declare that it’s “Confidential Business Information.” (CBI).
For consumers, the current approach to “protecting” the public from hazardous contaminants is a lose-lose proposition. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives chemicals a stamp of approval without anyone having to prove them safe, and then lets industry hide critical information about them from everyone. Even the President of the United States, barring some national security emergency, would be restricted from warning the public about potential health risks from a chemical if he reviewed the “confidential” information.
Last week the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, the agency’s in-house watchdog, released a damning report that ticked off a litany of serious, systemic problems with TSCA. It concluded that:
Given the limitations of the review process, EPA’s assurance that new chemicals or organisms introduced into commerce do not pose unreasonable risks to workers, consumers, or the environment is not supported by data or actual testing.
What if prescription drug manufacturers were allowed to introduce new products without first running them through rigorous safety tests?
Chemicals aren’t widgets. Many are complex mixes of sometimes-volatile ingredients bound together to produce a certain reaction — hardening plastics, in the case of BPA. Americans need a federal regulatory system with the muscle to review and approve all chemicals before they’re used, so those that could pose risks to health and the environment don’t end up in products like baby bottles and sippy cups, pizza boxes, cribs, rugs, child car seats – and in our bodies.