In this month’s Consume This!, Norah MacKendrick reminds us of the stakes of the current administration’s cutbacks at the EPA, where regulatory control over toxic chemicals in the food supply are giving further way to industry interests. A preview of her new book, Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics (University of California Press), MacKendrick outlines the risks posed to consumers as they navigate the byzantine world of BPA and BPS chemicals in our industrial food supply, and how privileged consumers can shop out of some, but not nearly all, of the potential harm. Read, comment, share!
– Ashley Mears
Consume This! BPS-Free plastic
By Norah MacKendrick
The ‘BPA-Free’ label is pervasive in most grocery stores. You’ll find it on water bottles, food packaging, baby bottles, and pretty much every other plastic item made for babies. If you’ve struggled to keep up with this one label (or roll your eyes at these kinds of claims), you’ll be dismayed to learn that BPS-Free is now a thing too, and will be visible on more of your plastic purchases in the years to come. Also, chances are you have traces of both bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS) in your body. In fact, you probably have a couple hundred other synthetic chemicals inside your body as well. How did your body become a repository for synthetic chemicals? Could you have prevented this if you had simply looked for the right label on the stuff you bought? I answer these questions in my new book, Better Safe than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics.
To understand how hard it is for people to protect themselves from everyday chemical exposures, let’s take a closer look at BPA. This compound is used to make polycarbonate plastic—a shatterproof, odorless, and clear plastic that’s handy for making water bottles and lining the inside of canned food tins. BPA is also used to coat thermal paper used in cash registers. Traces of BPA migrate from our water bottles, canned food and receipts into our bodies where they can interfere with our endocrine system. Chronic, low-dose exposure to BPA is linked to breast cancer, as well as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, infertility and ADHD. Since the early 2000s, environmental health scientists, biologists, and environmental groups have lobbied for a ban on BPA. Starting in 2007 major retailers in Canada and the U.S. promised to stop selling water and baby bottles made with the compound. Within a few years, most manufacturers of baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packages pledged not to use BPA. The FDA and EPA, however, maintain that BPA is safe.
Health concerns might have sparked the backlash against BPA, but this public outcry had little bearing on how the plastics industry selected a replacement compound. Industry has opted to use something chemically similar to BPA, as it would offer the same functionality—resistant to breakage and heat without imparting a plastic taste when storing beverages and food. Companies now rely on an alphabet soup of bisphenols to make plastic goods, from bisphenol-F and bisphenol-S, to bisphenol-Z. Just like their cousin BPA, these bisphenols migrate into our bodies and are suspected to interfere with the endocrine system. How could this have been allowed to happen?
Like BPA, these alternatives were brought to market without rigorous tests for their effects on human health and the environment because chemical regulation in the U.S. relies upon a safe-until-sorry model. That is, industry is permitted to introduce new compounds to the market, and these are presumed to be safe; it is up to regulators and members of the public to prove otherwise. Proving harm is exceedingly difficult in a system built upon protecting corporate profits and economic growth. BPA is emblematic of many other toxic swaps or “regrettable substitutions” that arise because solutions target a single compound, rather than the regulatory system that permits hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals to be used in our consumer products, to grow our food, and to enter our air, water, and soil.
While the regulatory system has failed to protect public health it has, indirectly, enriched eco-friendly retailers and brands like Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods Market and the products it sells flag the absence of harmful chemicals in their advertising. In fact, Whole Foods Market boasts that it makes grocery shopping more fun by filtering out the bad products from its stores, so shoppers don’t have to worry about reading labels.
Certainly, it’s important that companies develop safer products. Even so, the expansion of an eco-friendly marketplace in the absence of regulatory reform has created a two-tiered retail landscape where safer or non-toxic products are sold alongside conventional ones. In the interviews with mothers that I conducted for my book, I found that those who had time, extra money and access to the right store could navigate this landscape. But there were others who were not able to invest these kinds of resources into their regular shopping.
We should be profoundly skeptical that any store or product with a cheerful label boasting ‘toxic-free’ is going to improve our environmental health or protect the workers who harvest our food and make our products. At a time like this, when the EPA is experiencing tremendous cutbacks and appears bent on advancing industry interests, I realize that regulatory reform seems impossible at worst and a distant possibility at best. Even so, we cannot lose sight of the need to fix the broken system that oversees the safety of our food and consumer goods. The safe-until-sorry model puts the onus of protection on consumers—predominantly women in this case—but safer shopping barely scratches the surface of a much larger problem that will haunt us for generations to come.
Norah MacKendrick is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. Her research and teaching fall within the areas of environmental sociology, food, gender and consumer studies. Her book, Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics was published by University of California Press in May 2018.