Here's a twist on a frequently cited industry argument on chemical safety: Are alternative materials safer than products that legislators want to ban?
Elizabeth Grossman brings up the point on The Atlantic's website last week, in “Beyond BPA: Could ‘BPA-Free' Products Be Just as Unsafe?”
The article focuses on polycarbonate and epoxy, which use bisphenol A as a building block. But the premise also applies to other materials that have been a target of legislators and regulators, like PVC or certain phthalates.
When U.S. regulators express concern about a material, as some have with BPA, a natural response from the plastics industry is to introduce alternative materials.
But, she wonders, is the process for approving new materials for commercialization robust enough to make the public feel that the alternatives are safer than the original?
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the U.S. law that regulates chemicals in commerce, “it's entirely permissible to launch a new material into high-volume production without disclosing its precise chemical identity or any information about its toxicity,” she writes.
Grossman concludes that the U.S. needs a better system for testing new materials before they become commercially available.
As an observer (but not a participant) of the process for winning food-contact approval, I think she implies too strongly that Food and Drug Administration approval is simple.
While FDA does not really approve a new material, technically the agency says that it does not object. The agency gives the applicant permission to market a material based on the evidence submitted by the applicant.
So FDA doesn't really have the budget or authority to test a material to prove that it is safe. But it does apply judgment based on information provided by the supplier about the safety of the materials.
In today's political climate, I can't imagine that Congress will find funding that would allow for extensive testing prior to introduction of a new material.
And, after following the chemical safety debate for years, I can't imagine that industry and critics would ever come to an agreement on how much testing is sufficient, and exactly how to define the word “safe.”
But it's still a thought-provoking story that will likely get some attention, since BPA remains a material in the headlines.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”