It's noteworthy that we're about to see polycarbonate disappear from infant products — including baby bottles — because of concerns about the safety of bisphenol A.
With that in mind, here are some noteworthy comments on the situation, and perhaps some lessons learned:
First, there were a few allegations made along the way that cast the chemical industry in a bad light. The whiff of scandal helped keep the media and legislators interested in the story.
* One was the story by University of Missouri Professor Frederick vom Saal, who said he believed one chemical industry executive offered him a bribe to withhold publishing a paper critical of BPA. (Industry officials say it was not a bribe, but a misunderstanding.)
* Another was about the $15 million grant that Dow Chemical Co. made to the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan. The center is co-directed by the chairman of a Food and Drug Administration committee looking at BPA safety. Critics complained that the grant could influence the committee's decision. This story did generate some bad press — but the committee still came out pretty strongly against BPA.
* Also, there was the allegation that the American Chemistry Council wrote the FDA's draft report that said BPA was safe. This reflects more on the FDA's competence than ACC's. There's nothing wrong with industry having input on chemical safety issues. But the FDA should have anticipated that those findings would be attacked as biased.
Next, consider the role played in this issue by the researchers who felt that BPA was unsafe. The bans we're seeing today seemingly came out of nowhere. But actually they're the result of persistent efforts by a number of scientists who have been working behind the scenes for over a decade.
Vom Saal's first study came out in 1997, and Plastics News first mentioned him a year later. He's been a persistent critic of BPA ever since. Vom Saal and other researchers have proven to be very effective at dealing with the news media and getting coverage at critical times to attract attention to their cause.
The result: Industry could never say this was another Greenpeace crusade against chemicals aimed at attracting donations and publicity. These were actual researchers leading the charge. Having scientists line up on the other side of the debate made it tough to argue that industry had science on its side.
What's the bottom line? It's another victory for the precautionary principle — the idea that government should ban products believed to cause harm despite the absence of scientific certainty. This is a concept that's big in Europe and gaining ground in North America.
At this point, application of this concept is somewhat limited. Regulators, legislators and industry have shown that they're willing to apply the precautionary principle when the issue relates to babies. We saw that when the issue was about phthalates in teething toys, and now it's being applied again, exclusively to infant products.
A question for the future: When the debate is about a product for adults, will the public ditch the precautionary principle in favor of keeping a plastic product that offers the combination of cost and convenience that they want?
Or are we seeing the beginning of a trend that will eventually expand to include products that adults use, too?