You remember the final scene: Butch and Sundance, hopelessly cornered and surrounded by the Bolivian army, are stubbornly confident that they'll escape to make their way to sanctuary in Australia. It came to mind when I heard about the lawsuit filed by the chemical industry in a last-ditch effort to keep the notorious plastics and packaging chemical Bisphenol A, or BPA, off California's official list of chemicals considered hazardous to human health.
In the suit it filed on March 1, the American Chemistry Council claimed in Sacramento Superior Court that California's move to add BPA to the list of substances believed to cause cancer or birth defects was "unjustified." The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment took that step under Proposition 65, the state law that requires a warning label on any item that contains more than a certain level of a toxic chemical.
The suit seems a bit desperate, considering that Gov. Jerry Brown's administration hasn't yet actually placed BPA on the Prop 65 list. But it does demonstrate again that the chemical and food industries that produce, use and profit from the production and sale of BPA aren't at all concerned about the potential risks the chemical poses to people, including children. What does terrify the food and chemical consortium is the possibility of having to put warning labels on products containing BPA if it joins the infamous Prop 65 club. The companies that make the synthetic, hormone-disrupting substance are worried that their profits will dwindle if food, beverage and infant formula companies decide the potential headaches are too great and stop using BPA.
The number of health problems associated with BPA exposure in humans rivals the number of banks and trains held up by the Butch and Sundance's Hole in the Wall Gang. The list currently includes infertility, breast and reproductive system cancers, obesity, diabetes, early puberty, behavioral changes in children and resistance to chemotherapy treatments -- among others.
And BPA is almost impossible to avoid. As far back as 2009, lab tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group and Rachel's Network found BPA in 90 percent of umbilical cord blood samples the groups collected, showing for the first time that exposure to the chemical occurred in the womb.
Now studies published just in the last few days have linked BPA to additional health problems in children and discovered sources of exposure that had not been identified before now. As usual, the chemical industry has been quick to try to dismiss the conclusions of these investigations, along with the evidence from hundreds of other reports by independent scientists who weren't funded by industry.
One of the new studies was published March 1 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology by a team of scientists from Columbia University Medical Center. They tested the urine of 568 pregnant women and their children and determined that the kids with higher levels of BPA in their systems were more likely to be diagnosed with asthma, a disease that has steadily become more prevalent in American children over the years. One in every 10 kids now has the respiratory disease.
Dr. Kathleen Donohue, lead author of the Columbia study, said in a statement:
"'Asthma prevalence has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, which suggests that some as-yet-undiscovered environmental exposures may be implicated. Our study indicates that one such exposure may be BPA."
Less than a week later, on March 5, Dutch researchers published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that found that babies born to mothers with elevated levels of BPA weighed 20 percent less and had smaller heads than newborns whose mothers had much lower levels of BPA.
And in February, a collaborative team from six U.S. research centers reported in the journal Pediatrics that premature newborns were apparently being exposed to BPA by the very medical devices that newborn intensive care units used to treat them. The scientists showed that preemies who had been in contact with four or more BPA-containing medical devices had 1.6 times more BPA in their urine than those who had been exposed to three or fewer such devices.
If Gov. Brown's administration follows through with designating BPA as a health risk and the industry lawsuit fails, not only will California families benefit, so could the rest of the country. Much like Butch and Sundance, companies fighting to keep making and using BPA may be confronting their own version of the Bolivian army -- a populous state that has long been an environmental leader and is home to one of the largest economies on the planet. And that state may be about to officially require that some products made with BPA carry a label that says:
WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.
Let's hope public health prevails and that BPA takes the place it deserves alongside the other toxic chemicals identified under Proposition 65.