Dumb ideas are often infectious — especially in the world of politics. Lawmakers in several states, for example, are considering legislation similar to a foolhardy bill that the Maryland legislature passed last month that could itself actually increase infectious agents in our food supply.
Awaiting Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature, the Maryland law bans infant formula and baby food packaging that contains more than 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) of the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA). Other states — California, Oregon and Missouri — are looking at imposing similar legislation, and members of Congress have even introduced bills that would ban BPA in all food packaging.
BPA is used to make hard plastics as well as resins that line metal packaging to prevent contamination of the food supply. States have been considering anti-BPA laws and legislation because of environmental activists' wrongheaded claim that significant amounts of BPA migrate into food and pose unreasonable risks to human health.
The Maryland standard of 0.5 ppb is absurdly low — so stringent that it essentially bans all BPA in these packages. Meanwhile, regulatory bodies around the world have found BPA levels safe up to 3,000 parts per billion. And according a to a National Academy of Science report, the average person is exposed to no more than 6.3 ppb of BPA from food cans — far below levels of concern.
Moreover, BPA's alleged risk to humans is mostly based on studies done on rodents that were administered (often by injection) massive doses. The relevance to humans who are exposed to trace amounts in food is highly questionable. Moreover, humans metabolize and pass BPA quickly, while rodents do not.
These realities explain why scientific panels around the world have investigated BPA many times over and have found no problems. In Japan, the European Union, Canada, Norway, France and more — researchers could not find any public health ills related to consumer exposure to BPA.
Still environmental activists claim that BPA may upset our endocrine systems and create developmental problems for kids. They make these claims because BPA is what scientists call "weakly estrogenic."
Yet that does not mean it has any effect when humans are exposed to trace amounts. After all soy, peas, beans and a host of healthy foods have that same attribute. According to data from the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to such substances naturally found in our food is 100,000 to 1 million times higher than exposure to similarly estrogenic substances in BPA.
While there will be no benefits to these anti-BPA laws, they pose some serious health risks and serious environmental trade-offs. Maryland's law is so stringent that it basically amounts to a ban. Yet BPA-based resins are needed to line the inside of food containers — e.g., aluminum and steel cans — to reduce contamination of our food from rust, E-coli, botulism and a host of other dangerous pathogens. It also makes hard plastic bottles that have replaced glass in many applications — reducing risks from breakage.
Are lawmakers really willing to risk more children and adults suffering from E-coli or getting cut from broken glass based on environmental hype alone? Some of the state-level legislation supposedly addresses that issue by demanding that manufactures replace BPA products with less toxic, safer alternatives.
But you can't mandate something that might not exist. According to a recent World Health Organization report: "[A]t present, there appears to be no single replacement for BPA for all food contact applications. Furthermore, data on the safety of some of these replacement materials are limited or non-existent."
In fact, the packaging industry has been trying to remove BPA from their products because of public pressure. But they are having a very difficult time finding safer alternatives. One representative noted to the Washington Post: "We don't have a safe, effective alternative, and that's an unhappy place to be. … No one wants to talk about that."
BPA risks are most probably lower than a few tablespoons of soy milk — which is extremely low. Surely, broken glass and increased risks of food-borne illnesses — which could be the result of government BPA bans — should be the greater concerns.
Angela Logomasini is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based free market think tank. Her email is email@example.com.