September 13, 2010

MAINE COMPASS: Maine bureau can fill crack in federal chemical policy on BPA

Many of the 1.5 million people who were diagnosed with cancer last year would probably say they did everything right — they never smoked, they ate well and they exercised.

With some forms of cancers on the rise, especially among children, even as our awareness of healthy lifestyle choices improves, we need to ask ourselves a tough question: What are the hidden causes of illness that we have ignored?

With its recent report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk,” the President’s Cancer Panel has taken an important first step toward answering that question, asserting that our broken federal chemical policy is costing Americans their health.

Analyzing the prevalence of environmental toxins, the report cites a “growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer” and it goes on to single out one dangerous chemical in particular: bisphenol-A (BPA).

BPA is not only a dangerous chemical, it is everywhere. Once considered for use as an estrogen replacement therapy, it is now a building block in polycarbonate plastic. It is found in many consumer products, including baby bottles, sippy cups and the linings of food cans. It remains unregulated in most states, despite the growing link between BPA and several diseases, including breast and prostate cancer, learning and behavioral disabilities, diabetes and obesity. In fact, the evidence against BPA is overwhelming.

That’s why I was struck by the brazen protests of the international chemical lobbyists as Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection heard public comments on the proposal to make BPA Maine’s first priority chemical and ban its use in food and beverage containers.

The lobbyists each stepped to the microphone and questioned the scientific studies that continue to link BPA to a host of health problems. Their reckless tactic of delay puts Maine children at extreme risk and is exactly the wrong way to look at this equation. We need to shift the balance of power back toward consumers and shift the presumption of safety in their favor.

If it seems like it might be toxic — don’t use it.

The ban being considered would apply to the use of BPA in reusable food and beverage containers and is the first test of Maine’s 2008 Kid-Safe Products Act. This new law creates a process to identify the most dangerous chemicals used in children’s products, name the worst-of-the-worst as priority chemicals, and require manufacturers to provide consumers and retailers with good information.

Priority chemicals also can be restricted, phased-out and replaced with safer alternatives. It’s a common-sense law and a national model for successfully preventing disease and reducing health care costs. And it’s working.

I’ve taken a stand on toxic chemicals because in 2006 I was one of 13 Maine residents who participated in a “body burden” study. I was tested for more than 100 chemicals — from Teflon to mercury to flame retardants to phthalates. When my results came back, I found out that my body was filled with all of the chemicals they had tested for, including BPA. Some of those chemicals were at dangerously high levels.

The sad fact of the matter is that generations of Americans have been saddled with toxic chemicals in their bodies that will affect our health for a long time to come.

Worse yet, because many of the negative health effects of these chemicals can take years to develop, identifying them as a cause of illness can be extremely difficult.

It’s time to require chemical companies to demonstrate that their products are safe before we, and our children, are exposed to them.

Maine has taken bold action, but our work is far from over. We need the Maine Board of Environmental Protection to support the phase-out of BPA in children’s products. It is the first necessary step in protecting ourselves from harmful chemicals.

Hannah M. Pingree currently serves as the 99th Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. She has been the sponsor of numerous Maine laws to phase out the use of toxic flame retardants and of Maine’s 2008 Kid-Safe Products Law.

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