Jennifer Rogers | Protecting the public from harmful chemicals

I recently read an article about Bisphenol-A (BPA) that eerily reminded me of the movie, “Thank You for Smoking.” In the movie, the “merchants of death” or MOD Squad, as they call themselves, are lobbyists for the alcohol, gun, and tobacco industries and meet for lunch while plotting to keep vital information about the harmful health effects of their products out of the hands of the public. And they do so with great success, not to mention, great profit. 

What does this have to do with BPA? A recent Washington Post article said a group of chemical industry lobbyists met at the exclusive Washington, D.C., Cosmos Club to develop a public relations strategy to “tamp down public concerns” around the safety of BPA. BPA is a chemical that has been linked to breast cancer, testicular cancer, low sperm count, miscarriage and other reproductive problems. In fact, it has already been banned in Minnesota and Chicago. The BPA lobbyists agreed to use many of the same strategies used in the 1990s to create doubt around the harmful health effects of tobacco. As the meeting minutes reflected, industry representatives mentioned using fear tactics to dissuade people from choosing BPA-free packaging. They floated messages suggesting that people will no longer be able to buy cheaper canned goods, or that they will lose access to baby food. Furthermore, attendees said they doubted they could find a scientist to serve as a spokesman for BPA, instead deciding to use a young pregnant woman as their “holy grail.” Like Joe Camel or the Marlboro Man, the new “MOD Squad” is looking for ways to put a pleasant face on dangerous product. They can do this because there is so little oversight from any federal agency.

As a health advocate and a consumer, I find this news incredibly disturbing. BPA is just the tip of the iceberg – there are many more chemicals like BPA that pose a danger to our health. Although we have made great strides in some aspects of our health, when it comes to our reproductive health there are some startling trends. Sperm counts have decreased by about 50 percent in many industrialized regions, younger women are reporting difficulty conceiving, and more babies are born premature. One of the most common birth defects today is malformations of male reproductive organs. For the most part, we do not know exactly why this is happening, but evidence suggests that something in our environment is a cause.

Yet, it turns out that much of the responsibility of protecting ourselves and our kids from harmful chemicals is not with the EPA or the FDA, but instead our shoulders. It is particularly disturbing that the fear tactics used target low-income communities that often buy canned foods because they lack healthier options. History shows us that the worst environmental impacts on health have been inflicted upon communities traditionally lacking resources – low income communities and communities of color. Chemical companies should not be scaring us into no longer having access to the food we may rely on to make ends meet. Instead, we should have agencies that oversee them and require them to remove the harmful chemicals out of the food that they sell.

Under current law, chemicals do not have to be proven safe to get on or stay on the market. Currently, more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S. are presumed safe and more than 700 new chemicals are introduced into our environment each year. Companies should have the responsibility to test their products before they enter the market just as they do for drugs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been tasked with the simple yet profound charge “to protect human health and the environment.” But EPA lacks the tools. We must overhaul the chemical regulatory process – something that hasn’t been undertaken in over 30 years. We need reform that protects both public health and the environment, and places the responsibility on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of their products. This is a commonsense solution and long overdue.

Unless we want to risk becoming like another recent film — the sad, sterile world depicted in Wall-E — rigorous and comprehensive testing of the chemicals in our environment is an absolute necessity. At the very least, we need to avoid the sequel, “Thank You for Ingesting Poison.”


Jennifer Rogers is acting executive director for the Reproductive Health Technologies Project.

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