Chemical Warfare

Posted June 23, 2010, at 6:05 p.m.

Once the health threats of tobacco became known — cancer, heart disease and emphysema — it was impossible for the nation to go back and pretend cigarettes were OK in moderation. The same was true of substances in the living environment. During the 1960s, asbestos was ubiquitous in private and public buildings such as schools, offices, libraries and apartment complexes. Once the dangers of asbestos were known, the public demanded that it be removed. That came at a great cost, but few argued children should continue to be exposed to asbestos because removal would break business and government budgets.

Now that Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has proposed banning bisphenol A, or BPA, beginning in January 2012, policymakers must decide whether the chemical is indeed a threat to health, and whether it is as serious a threat as many have concluded it is.

The rules DEP is considering would apply to BPA in any reusable food or beverage container. The rules also would require manufacturers to identify toys and other products a child might use as containing BPA. The Board of Environmental Protection will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules on Aug. 19.

The process was set into motion by Maine’s 2008 Kid-Safe Products Act, which dictated that DEP, working with the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Maine Center for Disease Control, identify two priority chemicals. A chemical may be listed only if it “has been identified by an authoritative governmental entity on the basis of credible scientific evidence as being known as a carcinogen, a reproductive or developmental toxicant or an endocrine disruptor” or bioaccumulative and toxic, according to DEP’s website.

Five states have limited BPA in children’s products, so Maine is not breaking new ground if it adopts a ban. In 2008, Canada designated BPA as a toxin and Denmark this year became the first European Union nation to ban it in food and drink containers for young children.

Ideally, the federal government will issue a definitive ruling on BPA so manufacturers will not face a patchwork quilt of regulations among the states. Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California have proposed a federal ban on BPA, but it faces an uphill climb for approval. States have led the way before on environmental issues, eventually leading the federal government to act, so that may still come.

The process through which Maine is considering the BPA ban is deliberate, and wisely focused on children’s health, something everyone agrees is critical to protect, given the long-term problems that result from exposure at a young age to harmful chemicals. A finding that BPA is a carcinogen or a disruptor will cause economic pain for businesses that make or sell food and beverage containers using the chemical. But that pain pales in comparison to life-threatening illnesses.

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