ESSAY- Can it: Chemicals in plastics wreak havoc

I'm standing in my kitchen, hand poised over the trash. The cover is open, the wastebasket awaits my decision: are you going to toss that thing in here or what? But it's so pretty, this polycarbonate water bottle of mine. It's purple-tinted hard plastic, and perfect for the gym, where I keep it by my side, taking a swig every few minutes.

The thing is, I've just learned that this bottle could be poisoning me with every sip. And yet I'm conflicted: if it were dangerous, they wouldn't be allowed to sell these bottles, would they? The EPA, the FDA– somebody would stop them.

To hear politicians talk, you'd think that keeping us safe was Job One for the US government. There's a lot of pontificating about illegal immigrants, those intruders hijacking our health systems and costing us millions.

Well, from what I've been hearing and reading lately, there are migrants moving in on our territory, and they're doing us harm– but it's not people from other countries.

This intruder is a man-made molecule: Bisphenol A. It's in my polycarbonate water bottle, and it's in the lining of nearly every can in your kitchen.

Oh, and it's in you, too. It's having its way with your endocrine system, mimicking hormones and causing permanent changes in the way your body functions.

A Russian chemist invented this molecule back in 1891, and in the 1930s, when scientists were casting about for a synthetic form of estrogen, Bisphenol A (BPA) was considered for use as a drug.

Scientists rejected BPA in favor of the stronger DES, the now-notorious synthetic hormone given to many pregnant women from the 1930s to the early '70s, the one that caused cancers and other maladies in their offspring.

So, BPA could have been used as a synthetic estrogen, but instead was shelved until someone discovered that you could string these molecules together and make stuff– all kinds of stuff, including containers for food and beverages. Now nearly all cans sold in the United States have BPA in the linings, where it comes into direct contact with your chicken noodle soup or whatever.

The plastics industry admits that BPA gets into food and beverages, but they maintain that it's doing you no harm. Thirteen studies have been conducted by the plastics industry, and none of those studies showed BPA to be harmful in any way.

However, there have been over 160 government-funded studies of low-level exposure to BPA. More than 90 percent of those studies demonstrate harmful effects from ingesting this molecule.

Hmm. Sound familiar? We've had similar "controversies" previously: in the tobacco industry, regarding nicotine, and in the oil industry, regarding climate change.

The thing is, if you use toxicology studies and methodologies from the 1980s, you can claim that BPA is harmful only if you literally consume half a ton of canned food daily. And those 25-year-old studies are the ones the US government uses as the safety standard for allowable levels of BPA in our bodies.

Traditionally, when studying the harm a substance can inflict, researchers use high-impact doses. That's what was done with BPA back in 1982. They discovered that if you give an enormous amount of BPA to rodents, the worst that happens is they lose weight.

But now, scientists know that extremely low doses of certain chemicals can interact with hormone receptors in the body and screw things up royally. At levels many thousands of times lower than the amount used in those 1980s rodent studies– and in some cases, a few million times lower– BPA is switching genes on and off and wreaking havoc in multiple body systems.

Turns out, if you study toxicity only at high doses, you're missing all the stuff that could be going on at very low doses– and for some substances, there's one hell of a lot going on at low doses.

In studies where low levels of BPA were given to rodents, researchers found links between BPA and recurrent miscarriages, prostate cancer, breast cancer, uterine fibroids, obesity, and chromosomally abnormal grandchildren. One study has found a relationship between BPA ingestion and an increase in insulin resistance, a condition that leads to type 2 diabetes.

So, wouldn't you think the EPA and FDA would come up with a new safety standard for plastics, one based on 21st-century science, rather than one based on research from 1982?

If the federal government has any interest in protecting its citizens, updating safety standards for manufacturing is likely to save more lives (and money) than building higher fences on our borders.

Merely studying high amounts of BPA is like standing on your porch with a gun, protecting your house from intruders when the intruders are termites eating the porch out from under you. You may look like you're doing something important, but sooner or later, you'll wind up on your rear end and wonder what happened.

And so I say, "Goodbye, my pretty, purple-tinted polycarbonate water bottle," and drop it into the trash can.