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When the concerns about bisphenol A (BPA) first reached critical mass, how much waste was added to our landfills because people discarded their water bottles? This was an extreme over-reaction if you ask me. Personally, I kept mine. But then, I am a Chemical Engineer. I figured I had been exposed to much higher levels of far more harmful chemicals than whatever BPA was left inside my ten year old water bottles. More than that though, I considered the relative benefit of an infinitesimally small reduction in the affect BPA exposure may have on my health versus the creation of waste and consumption of additional resources to produce five new water bottles for my use.

Now, let’s look at how industry has reacted. Almost immediately, the makers of durable plastic water bottles, commonly used during outdoor activities, found a way to manufacture the product without BPA. It makes sense – their customers are health conscious after all. On the other hand, makers of cans used for canned vegetables immediately began discussing the cost versus benefit. They concluded that the levels are too low to cause a concern and that the cost of using an alternate material is too high to be justified.

What is common here is that the two industries each did a cost/benefit analysis and came to different conclusions for their application. Nothing wrong with that. Quite appropriate in fact. And if I lived in an area where fresh vegetables were not available for much of the year, I would take the health benefits of eating vegetables over the potential minor health effect of the BPA in the can.

Now what is even more interesting is that as more studies are being released, it appears that there is another major source that had not been widely discussed. Cashiers who frequently handle thermal paper and smokers have even higher amounts of BPA in their blood than people who eat a lot of canned vegetables. Read more at Environmental Health News October 8, 2010: “Recipe for high BPA exposure: Canned vegetables, cigarettes and a cashier job”

Here, what is interesting is that carbon-less paper was initially considered to be pretty clever and to reduce waste. Human beings are great inventors. We keep inventing solutions to problems. Sometimes the new solution creates more problems, and we have to go back and invent yet another new solution. As issues like this one get more attention, we are starting to learn more about how to develop safer products and production processes. This is the advancement of science. More here:

This week, there is a conference of experts on BPA meeting in Ottawa Canada to try to establish a consensus on this issue. See This is a sign that the issue is moving away from hysteria and into good use of science. That’s another good sign.

Remember, no chemical is completely safe. Even water in high doses can kill.

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  1. Jim Spath
    Mary – I too, kept my non-BPA-free Nalgene (R) water bottle, and continue to drink out of it.  I’ve lost one metal water bottle due to freezing, but that old bottle is so tough, it not only hasn’t cracked when a little ice forms, it’s been great at hammering tent pegs when rocks aren’t so plentiful.  There have been articles written about risk perception vs. reality; statistics can mislead people unless they check their facts and assumptions.
    Good blog; thanks.
  2. Marilyn Pratt
    A really good read Mary.  Thanks so much for joining the ranks of bloggers here and providing quality content on of my subscribed topics. 
    I found this particularly interesting: “What is common here is that the two industries each did a cost/benefit analysis and came to different conclusions for their application”
    Which leads one to believe its not just about the science nor the hysteria.  It seems, its strongly about the economics.  But then we get into testy waters when we measure profit over people which is another way of viewing cost/benefit.  For me, for the present, I’ll avoid canned vegetables for as long as I can afford to do so.  But I imagine there is more to it than that.
    Eagerly waiting for more installments from you.
    1. Mary Kilgo Post author
      The statement “we measure profit over people” seems to imply that no profit is acceptable if any one person is harmed. With chemicals, there is rarely a clear line regarding “good” versus “bad”. It comes down to how they are used, what quantity, etc. Chemicals affect different people in different ways. Chemicals can be essential to life in small doses but poison in larger doses (think essential minerals). Chemicals often solve one problem but create another. Example – insecticide kills aquatic life, but in central Africa, it saves many people from dying of malaria. So it is not about profit over people. It is about trade-offs. And trade-offs are easier to make when we have good science. Chemicals have made our lives substantially better – pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, fertilizers, cell phones 🙂 The important thing is that we continue to invest in good science including learning how to udnerstand chemicals better. Sure companies try to spend their money wisely to maximize their profits. In the same way, I would rather see science progressing based on science, not on emotional responses from people who do not understand science. Question is, how to ensure that?

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