The continued use of bisphenol A in the UK raises important questions about how we safeguard public health from chemicals, to what extent we operate preventative and precautionary principles, and whether we really protect people exposed to the chemicals – rather than the markets for the chemicals.
The plastics industry has periodically demonstrated, by its past public health failures, why we need both prevention and precaution. This was the case with its handling of worker exposure to vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) gas in PVC manufacture into the 1960s. A substantial lab and later epidemiological science database existed on the hazards and risks of that gas but action was often ignored, delayed and diverted.
BPA, a chemical recognised in the 1930s and with almost 1,000 lab tests available on it, is now emerging in a similar way. The tests showed oestrogen-mimicking, reproductive, prostate and brain effects. However, unlike VCM when hundreds of thousands of factory workers were exposed to potential risks, we now have millions of people, especially babies and children, exposed to BPA contamination in the wider environment. The chemical is found in the urine of 90 per cent of Americans. Many would regard its use as non-essential because of the availability of less hazardous alternatives.
The continued sale of baby products that contain BPA reflects the inertia of our politicians and public health agencies. Retailers could select BPA-free products, as happened with some supermarkets banning particular pesticides. Or they could label products made with BPA and allow consumers to make informed choices. The fact that retailers have not taken action makes the need for government intervention even more urgent.
If Canadian regulators are convinced by the existing science that BPA presents a potentially serious threat to public health, especially to babies and children, and will end BPA use in food-contact products for babies, why don't UK regulators take the same precautionary action?
Instead, when hazards and serious potential risks from BPA emerge here, the first response from ministers and scientific bodies is to argue or wait for more research – the paralysis-by-analysis syndrome. David Michaels, one of Barack Obama's new agency health chiefs, has described how industries cast doubt on scientific research revealing public health problems. He describes how "doubt" is an industry product to stop improvements in public health through the removal of hazardous substances. He also refers to the past inertia of regulators in efforts to protect public health. The UK appears to manifest all these characteristics in dealing with BPA, at times to a worse degree than North America.
It perhaps explains why civil society groups such as Breast Cancer UK, WEN, NCT and Chem Trust raise the public health concerns about BPA, why they call for the precautionary principle to be applied to it, and why they flag up simple steps including labelling all food-contact products that contain BPA, so consumers can make their own choices. These solutions are in stark contrast to the frequent passivity, obstruction and obfuscation of UK regulators, their advisers and some politicians.
The writer is a member of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling