Friday, May 02, 2008

We shine at solving non-problems
May 2, 2008

Our water bottles are safe once more, thanks to a federal response so speedy and decisive that you could almost believe a new day was dawning in Canada.
In less than a year, bisphenol A went from a chemical that few Canadians had heard of to one of the most talked about and roundly condemned toxins in the country. Were it not for my ongoing frustration at our penchant to rally around obscure concerns, I’d take last month’s BPA ban as a heartening sign that our federal government can still rally to a cause if it needs to.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure the world will be a better place without bisphenol A. It’s OK with me that we’ve banned the stuff. But in terms of tackling the issues that really ail us in this country and around the world, a ban on BPA gets us exactly nowhere.
North American scientists have actually known about the more unsettling aspects of the man-made chemical for more than 70 years. The media didn’t have much to say on the topic until about a decade ago, however, and only really got an appetite for it in the past year. Of the 115 stories on BPA that have collectively run in B.C. newspapers over the years, 100 of them have been in the last year.
If you haven’t heard - although I can’t imagine that - BPA is a chemical used in the manufacturing of hard plastic and epoxies. Researchers first identified it as an “estrogen mimic” way back in the 1930s. Men working in plastics factories can develop breasts from breathing in BPA fumes day after day.
BPA exposure is thought to put people at greater risk of hormone-related diseases like breast and prostate cancer. It’s also been linked to smaller penis size in infants.
Not good. But as a priority for public health, this loud fussing about BPA exposure is really just noisy distraction from the things that are actually killing us in this country.
The government wants us to believe it’s making the planet a little safer for all of us by banning toxins like BPA. But if that’s the case, how is it that truly disastrous toxins such as tobacco and alcohol remain readily available? Could it have something to do with the $14 billion a year in tax revenue generated through the sale of cigarettes and booze?
Smoking accounts for more than a fifth of all deaths in Canada. Alcohol-related harms cost us $14.6 billion annually. Consumption of either toxin over a lifetime is associated with all kinds of cancers, organ damage, heart and lung problems, and chronic health issues. Together, tobacco and alcohol use account for most of the burden of disease, death and disability in Canada.
BPA is used in the manufacture of plastic baby bottles, something which no doubt helped make it an “It” issue. But if it’s children and youth we’re worried about, why don’t we do something to protect the nearly 400 babies born each year in Canada with the lifelong brain damage caused by a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy - and the untold thousands who go undiagnosed? How come suicide is a leading cause of death for Canadians ages 15 to 24, and we don’t even talk about it?

Facts and figures around BPA-related harms are far less certain. Studies of the chemical’s toxic properties have generally involved rats, which were either injected with BPA or had BPA implants placed in their brains. That doesn’t much resemble the way humans ingest the chemical, so it’s difficult to draw parallels.
Nor do rats and humans respond the same way to toxins. Even the rats aren’t responding uniformly to BPA exposure; some don’t react to the chemical at all, and researchers are calling for more study to sort that out. In the meantime, we just don’t know the effects of low-dose BPA exposure on people’s health.
Again, that’s not to say that we should keep the stuff around. If we don’t need it, why use it? But at the risk of sounding cynical, what I conclude from Canada’s rush to ban BPA is that the plastics industry must not have much of a lobby, and that the media hullabaloo leading up to the ban certainly did a fine job of distracting us from all the other things Ottawa isn’t doing.
But please, drink deeply from your new BPA-free water bottle, and take what comfort you can from the knowledge that an uncertain and possibly non-existent threat to your health has been avoided. As for the real killers, they’re still out there.

1 comment:

Ian Lidster said...

This was excellent, Jody. Now our water shall be safe from all demons, false and otherwise. At the Free Press we used to call such governmental nanny-statism the Lawn Darts Syndrome. Nobody was ever hurt by a lawn dart, but let's ban them anyway and ignore real problems.