BISPHENOL-A: THE ONE-ACT PLAY
Our evening began in Peter Seychelles comfortable study in his New York townhouse, where the candlelight was just right, the hi-fi was in the background, and the Bisphenol-A was causing a stir.
Narrator: A worried friend rushes in worried about recent plastics news. She is worried. The scene is set.
Worried Friend, rushing into the study (appears worried, gnawing fingernails, shifty, unsteady eyes, a mauve t-shirt that says “concerned” right across the chest): What do I do? What do I do?
Other friend, not worried (puffing a pipe, which he is quick to note is not a pipe): What do you mean? Is this about all that Bisphenol-A?
Worried friend: Yes! Yes! We need to talk plastics….I’m scared to buy anything in plastic, use plastic, have plastic near….is everything that is being said true? What’s it mean? Why haven’t I heard of this? Is it new? It’s all over the news! My kids, my God, my kids! I’ve been just sitting around and freaking out!
Other friend (removing pipe from mouth, setting it on knee, appearing more attentive and pensive now in repose): As an honest broker of scientific issues in contexts both historical and contemporary I have to defer to a more informed colleague who can answer your questions. Any answers I offer would either be facetious or in the vein of, How could you not already know that this is going on, always, everywhere, as a consequence of our risk-producing new modernity?
Worried friend: You, uhh, kinda broke character there…but yes, yes, thank you thank you!
[In the distance a trumpet blares three times. There is pomp. Some circumstance. But mostly pomp. From stage left comes a new character, as if from the sky, with appropriate cape and superhero garb, at the ready to help his non-worried compeer and worried friend.]
New character, who looks official: Amazing how the tides turn, eh? Where once it was all candy and roses, now we find distress. But I can offer this: Here are some rules I try to live by: plastics #1 and #2 seem to be ok. So let’s start there. Plus, and you have to follow me here, BPA shows up in #7s, though not all #7s have BPA – it’s a logic puzzle.
Non-worried friend who is now more frustrated by the complexity of plastics consumption patterns than not-worried, per se, about their existence: OK, that’s fun.
New character, our be-caped and chemically informed hero: Listen, what I’m saying is there are things you can do, things your worried friend can do if worried about BPA. I, for example, don’t use canned goods unless I have to (BPA liners) and if I do I try to use Eden brand products (they use a BPA free liner). Here’s what else you can do: Get a good stainless steel container for water (like those from Klean Kanteen) – at least until the new BPA free versions are out from folks at Nalgene and other places.
Non-worried friend who is indeed worried, about more than he can comprehend (oops, he gave away his gender, narrowing by half the possibilities of who the former-non-worried friend could be), wonders if knowledge is the answer: Is knowing more about the issue the answer?
Our be-caped hero, softly but not condescendingly chuckling: More awareness is always better, but we certainly can’t assume that simply knowing more about it is the end stage. For some background, here’s a write-up that Sarah Vogel did on the history of the controversy about BPA. It’s really a must-read for this topic.
Newly worried friend [NWF], worried for the integrity of society, worried at such a diffuse and abstract scale as to be pointlessly worried, but still going on, still wondering what one can do, how one can think: Is that the same Sarah Vogel who is finishing her dissertation on the history of BPA? The same one who was even quoted in a Washington Post article a few weeks ago about this very subject?
Hero: Of course.
NWF: And if one wanted a bite-size news story to think about the broader plastics context within which this BPA issue fits, what would one do?
Hero: Am I right to suspect that “one” is actually “you”? Ah yes, then, I too know the comfort of the impersonal pronoun. This link would be good, I’d say: Not to mention that “one” should seek a broader view that the Chinese dog food and toy poisoning and lumber inspection and deforestation and coal-fired plants and unblinkered production schedules to meet the demands of the West are also part of. Lead. Phthalates. Vinyl. Benzene. It goes on. Not to mention, oh I don’t know, Rachel Freakin’ Carson almost fifty years ago now.
Narrator: I admit this all seems a bit forced, but they hired me so I have to narrate it. I had some others ideas about breaking the fourth wall, about some meta-dialog and whatnot, but they got scrapped in the editing room. I think what they’re getting at is that BPA is just one thread in a thick fabric.
(stepping into the spotlight from stage left) Other person, a new character: But this BPA really is all over the news, isn’t it? Like in this National Toxicology Program report.
(stepping in symmetrically from stage right) Another other person: It really is. Like here, from Salon.
Yet another reasonable person (apparently having dropped in from the roof, a la Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible): It really is, isn’t it? Like here, in the LA Times.
An additional reasonable person (and really, who cares where this one came from): I even think the wikipedia page has something like 70 plus references in it. How about that!
A Canadian reasonable person (arriving by pony): Yeah, the Canadians are way out ahead on this one. Like here, in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and as reported at Grist.
Narrator: I better step in. Yes, yes it is all over. That WP article was particularly well done. It seems the rub is not between whether or not we test BPA for health effects. There have been untold numbers of tests for such. Plus, if you’re the time-line type, here’s a good rundown of BPA over the past 117 years.
Other person (I forget which one): And so you mean it is not a matter of doing the science or not doing the science?
Narrator: That’s right Timmy, it goes beyond that. The rub seems to be that it also matters who does the science, and why, and through what research regime.
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:
So by my former lecture and advice,
Shall you my son. You have me, have you not?
Other person, along with Hero and that first person way up there, the one who was originally the NWF: But does that mean it is about whether or not the science was slanted? Whether or not it was done by interested scientists and not the fabled Mertonian disinterested scientist? Are you about to tell us that this is just another story of corrupt corporate science versus noble public science? Because we hear that a lot.
Narrator (chuckling): No, no Timmy. This is not so simply cast in binary good/evil terms, nor in terms of objective/subjective science, or corporate/non-corporate. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of evidence that corporate lackeys are trying to steer the testing results. Don’t let’s get started on all the Tobacco Industry tactics again.
Chorus: Why not? What’s with the tobacco folks again?
Narrator: Oh, well if the playwright will allow it, I’d add that one notable feature is the link between the tobacco litigation and the chemical lobby via one guy in particular, attorney Terry Quill.
Anonymous other character, who is strangely similar to the “Our Hero” character above, but who is becoming less and less comfortable being so-called: Yes, ummm, sorry I’m late [adjusts tie]. You should go check out the Philip Morris webpage. Once Philip Morris realizes that Endocrine Disruption (ED), and BPA, might be a problem for them, you see this guy Quill taking over as the expert on the matter, prepping them to fight the claims from scientists. You’ll see that his success in the manufacturing-of-uncertainty tactic for tobacco was noted by the ED folks, and he was brought on board in the later 1990s. Like in this, and this, and this, and this. All pdfs.
Chorus: Is this where we feign surprise? Because we gotta tell you, we just came from Lysistrata, and this isn’t so surprising.
Narrator: Oh chorus, how you mock the conventions of the theater. Getting back to my earlier train of thought, before the tobacco guys derailed us….The WP article has a telling passage that helps explain why this situation is not so simply reduced to good science/bad science, and it’s worth repeating it here: “A decade ago, Frederick vom Saal, a reproductive scientist at University of Missouri at Columbia, came up with a different research strategy. He theorized that because BPA can mimic estrogen, a female sex hormone, minuscule amounts introduced to fetuses or infants could change cell structure and cause significant health problems later in life. He found that doses 25,000 times below what the government has labeled as safe harmed developing cells in mice.”
Everyone else: So what’s that mean?
A different someone else: Oh, what you mean is, at first, for the first few decades of minor research on the subject, if I can quote that Sarah Vogel, “The idea was: Look, this stuff is at such low levels, it really couldn’t effect any harm.” This was a research regime, a way to identity and approach issues of public health and safety with new products. But eventually other kinds of researchers opened up other kinds of questions. And it turns out that it isn’t just what answer you get, but what questions you ask? Vom Saal “came up with a different research strategy.”
Narrator: I’d say that’s a good way to put it, yes.
Vice president of products divisions for the American Chemistry Council, Sharon Kneiss: Yet I “said in a conference call with reporters two weeks ago that industry research is unassailable. ‘We make it a policy to supply government agencies with data, and we have done it in the case of BPA,’ [I] said. ‘We supplied studies following the highest levels of quality in terms of their study. We stand behind the quality of the studies.’”
Unconvinced member of the public (i.e., everyone else): Yes, I expected that you would say that.
Dow Chemical spokesman: “We categorically reject any suggestion that what we did was in any way unethical.”
Anybody else in the universe: You’re kidding us, right? I thought this was a tragedy, not a comedy.
Worried friend (remember her?): Thanks! You are the best!
Winnie the Pooh: Oh, bother!
Our hero (mumbling by the sink off-stage): If the concern extends beyond BPA, we could get into phthalates and vinyl…but maybe your worried friend is just concerned about BPA? You need to get into this slowly, I’d tell her.
Narrator (speaking to the Worried Friend): But don’t be so relieved! I once heard a little bird say something more important on the whole issue. Oh wait, was it our hero again?
Our hero (returning to the stage, dabbing water from his pantlegs): Sorry, yes, I was just rinsing out my canteen. I’d say that while the fight against BPA might have been a success (or will be) the fight against the entire regime of consumer products and late-modern chemical production that gave birth to the problem still exists. While the regime is by its nature irreducible, some features can be noted: we don’t know how to do toxicity testing for these sorts of effects, at least not on a massive scale; we still fight over “good” science; and we still have literally tens of thousands of chemicals out there that have had no testing on them whatsoever.
Narrator (stares pensively from the catwalk): …
Our hero: so what’s the big deal about BPA? Well, we actually did have some data (folks have had there eyes on it for decades). So, the point of all of this is: how do I know that BPA free is really any better?
Narrator: And so it begins, another new day in our modern world where we feel this is the beginning, not the end.
Lights dim, curtain draws, Peter Seychelles returns to his chicken and wine affair. An eye-of-the-storm kind of clam fills the theater.