Last week National Public Radio posted a story and audio report on bisphenol A and how it fits into the debate on the precautionary principle.
The story, Is 'Better Safe Than Sorry' Reason Enough For Law? points out that even supporters of the concept of the precautionary principle disagree about where to draw the line.
To put it bluntly, when is there enough doubt about the safety of a product to ban it? Reasonable people can disagree.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein used a very broad definition of the precautionary principle last month when she introduced her bill to restrict BPA. If you do not know for certain the chemical is benign, it should not be used, Feinstein said.
But Dr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, told NPR that Feinstein's standard is impossible to meet.
It's almost impossible to prove that something will never happen, said Schettler, an expert on the precautionary principle. (Nevertheless, Schettler still believes BPA should be removed from food and drink containers.)
Obviously the chemical industry doesn't want Feinstein's definition to set a precedent. Still, I doubt that even she would take it that far. Many chemicals that we all depend on every day in modern society are not benign. Should we ban them all? Take a look at your periodic table of the elements you remember, from high school chemistry class. Let's make a list of non-benign chemicals that we could ban. How about hydrogen, chlorine and potassium?
This is probably a case of a politician oversimplifying an issue for the benefit of creating a good sound bite.
Meanwhile, BPA bans continue to gain traction, not only in Congress but in statehouses, too. In New Britain, Conn., The Herald newspaper reported last week that about 50 people attended a rally in Hartford aimed at banning BPA. The event was sponsored by the Coalition for a Safe & Healthy Connecticut, and it was attended by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and state Sen. Ed Meyer, co-chairman of the state senate's Environmental Committee.
This chemical kills and cripples, he said, adding that everyone needs to demand that all manufacturers be more responsible.
Perhaps Blumenthal and Feinstein need some remedial training in writing sound bites. They are fine public servants, I'm sure. But they are not qualified to make decisions about chemical safety. How did we get to a point where they are taking charge of the BPA issue?
The problem is that politicians, and much of the public, no longer trust regulators to make decisions about chemical safety. The Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration have very little credibility. They have been too slow to act, and too frequently they seem to be in the back pocket of the industries they're supposed to regulate.
The logical result is we have legislators deciding that they must err on the side of safety in every situation, regardless of the cost or other implications. It's a fine mess.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News and author of The Plastics Blog.