August 12, 2010

MAINE COMPASS: State can stop use of chemical that is linked to many diseases

In 2008, the state of Maine became a leader in safe chemicals legislation when it passed the Maine Kid-Safe Products Act, a law that aimed to protect children and babies from toxic chemicals in consumer products.

As part of this law, the state pledged to identify two hazardous substances each year — called priority chemicals — and phase them out of products intended for children.

On Aug. 19, a public hearing will be held before the Department of Environmental Protection to debate whether Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, will become the state’s first priority chemical.

BPA was invented more than a century ago, and, by the 1930s, its hormone-disrupting effects were so well-known that scientists considered using it as an artificial estrogen. Instead, this chemical — whose impacts on the human body mimic those of pharmaceutical-grade hormones — became a component of hard plastics, and was put into the lining of food cans, a use that practically guaranteed it would find its way into human bodies.

This is exactly what has happened. Most of us are exposed to BPA in myriad ways every day. It is in packaged food and bottled water, pizza boxes, water coolers, baby bottles, printer inks and even grocery store receipts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 93 percent of Americans carry discernible levels of BPA in our bodies, most of which likely comes from food and beverage containers. Even newborn babies carry a burden of pollution: In a recent study by the Environmental Working Group, 90 percent of umbilical cord blood tested positive for the presence of BPA. 

Just as BPA has countless commercial applications, it is equally versatile in its ability to cause harm. Hundreds of human and animal studies by government and academic researchers have linked BPA to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, infertility, developmental and reproductive harm, early puberty and obesity — and it may show its effects at the same low levels to which we, Maine residents, are exposed.

A recent study by the federal government found that male factory workers who are exposed to BPA have rates of sexual dysfunction seven times higher than that of the general population. And researchers at the University of Cincinnati have shown that BPA interferes with the function of chemotherapy drugs, so that in addition to giving people cancer, it can prevent them from healing.

A single serving of canned food a day, for an adult, provides the same dose of BPA — proportionate to body weight — that has been shown to cause harm in lab rats. Imagine, then, the degree to which our children, with their small, fragile bodies and still-developing systems, are exposed. 

The good news is that in the case of BPA, bans work. In Japan, efforts to reduce the use of BPA have resulted in significantly lower body levels of the chemical. It has now been restricted in seven states — including Washington, New York and Connecticut — and it has been banned throughout Canada.

Safer alternatives exist, and already are viable and in use elsewhere in the world. Canada has reported that its ban imposed minimal cost and impact on industry. Now is our chance for Maine to follow this lead.

We cannot trust that manufacturers will discontinue the use of BPA on their own, even when presented with safer alternatives. After all, a century has passed in which they have failed to do so.

Instead, in order to end this chronic, low-level poisoning of Maine’s people — as well as reduce health-care costs now and in the future — the BPA ban must be passed.

This decision is a chance for the state government not only to build upon its previous accomplishments, but also to take vital steps in securing the health of its citizens.


Blair Braverman of Davis, Calif., is a senior at Colby College, where she is studying environmental policy, with a particular focus on health and justice. She is an intern with the Environmental Health Strategy Center and has testified several times before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on matters relating to environmental health legislation.

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