The ABCs of Environmental Hysteria: Activists, Bisphenol-A and Children

Spreading like wildfire, more attempts have been made to ban Bisphenol-A (BPA) at the state level in 2011 than in any previous year. More than 50 bills have been introduced in legislatures across the country to ban a chemical that commonly lines beverage and food containers. The Oregon Senate recently passed Senate Bill 695, which would make illegal the sale, distribution or manufacturing of a child’s beverage container made or lined with BPA. The bill, now headed to the Oregon House, is a perfect example of baseless environmental hysteria leading to illogical and destructive regulations.

Year after year, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, environmental lobbyists and activists descend upon the state capitol to convince legislators that “evil” corporations insist on using a chemical they claim is unsafe. With the emotional argument of “saving children from cancer” as their mainstay, these activists are pressuring Salem politicians to ban BPA altogether.

A number of important lessons can be gleaned from their efforts:

First, people tend to overestimate risk and to exaggerate the benefits of risk-reducing laws. Proponents of banning BPA insist that government should use the “precautionary principle.” This means that if a possibility of causing harm to the public exists, despite lack of a scientific consensus, then politicians have a “social responsibility” to protect the public by passing laws to prevent possible harm. The precautionary principle allows politicians to justify discretionary decisions based solely on public fear. In the case of BPA, politicians may choose to ban the product entirely, even if the scientific community continues to exonerate this chemical of the claims made against it.

In BPA’s defense, we know a lot about it. In wide use for over fifty years, the chemical has been extensively studied. The science has revealed that consumer exposure to BPA is far below levels of concern, even for infants and children. BPA is actually quite useful in protecting consumers against food contamination. In other words, banning BPA could create significant new risks. Products or other chemicals that would be introduced to perform the same functions may be more expensive, not work as well, and produce new safety problems that have yet to be studied. Thus, switching to a less tested and potentially less safe alternative is risky for children and infants. In this case, adherence to the precautionary principle actually should preclude the use of the precautionary principle by those concerned about public health!

Second, the consumer market is already adjusting to meet the demands of chemical hypochondriacs. Numerous manufacturers produce BPA-free beverage containers, and major retailers such as Walmart are asking for alternatives to meet consumer demand. BPA-free manufacturers openly advertise their products as BPA-free. When a consumer desire becomes mainstream, regardless of whether it is scientifically justified, a free market will meet that demand. This should make one wonder why politicians in Salem think they need legislation to address BPA worries.

Finally, BPA is just today’s target in a never-ending war by environmentalists to eliminate from the environment anything humanly manufactured. This attitude can be summed up with one word: chemophobia – the unreasonable conviction that all chemicals are bad and that all things loosely defined as “natural” are good. Fear makes it difficult for anyone – let alone politicians – to take a rational look at the issue, especially when ban proponents are pulling the “Do you hate children?” card.

Although reason and objectivity eventually should win a debate, they often don’t. That is yet another reason why it is so important to limit government interference. As more state politicians pressured by hard-charging environmentalists and misguided parents move to ban BPA, pressure will build on those who hold out. Unjustified bans become the rationale for more bans. Sadly, it won’t stop with BPA, as special interests always will strive to use government to control fellow citizens and to limit their choices.

Todd Wynn is Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Economics from California State University Long Beach and his masters in International and Developmental Economics from University of San Francisco.