04/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Moon Mission For Safer Plastics?

We've sequenced the human genome, landed on the moon, invented smart phones and wireless Internet access, but from what the chemical and packaging industries have been saying in response to questions about the safety of certain products, American innovation may be in trouble.

This dilemma presented itself during testimony from the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA), American Chemistry Council, and Grocery Manufacturers Association to the Oregon state senate last month. Like Washington, Wisconsin, Vermont, Pennsylvania among other states, Oregon is considering a bill to bar bisphenol A (BPA) - the chemical building block of polycarbonate plastics and resins that line many food and beverage cans but that's been identified as an endocrine disruptor and linked to a range of health problems - from food contact products for children under three. If BPA were restricted, cautioned the trade associations, food supplies would be unsafe and insecure.

Workable alternatives to BPA are not available said NAMPA representative William Hoyle, who cited the importance of canned food to homeland security, during national emergencies, and averting food poisoning as reasons to stick with BPA. "Think about Haiti," he said, invoking the most recent natural disaster.

"What's in the works is years away from market implementation," said Hoyle. "We've been trying since 1992 to produce a different jar lid liner," Hoyle told Oregon policy-makers, "but we haven't been able to find one that works."

Food container linings lack the allure of inventing the next iPhone or curing cancer, but listening to the industry reps. I began to wonder: Do we need a new Apollo Mission to find safe alternatives to these troublesome plastics? Perhaps an oratorically inspiring Presidential Challenge or a massive grant from Bill Gates? Rather than cowering in fear of endocrine disruptors or tainted cans of soup, why not rally the best and the brightest? We can fly civilians at supersonic speed. Surely we can invent a food can liner that doesn't mess with our genes.

This came to mind last week when the future of American innovation was again called into question - again in the context of chemical product safety - at the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works committee hearing on public exposure to toxic chemicals.

"The American public has become a living, breathing repository for chemical substances," said Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) who chaired the February 4th hearing. "And when the chemicals used in flame retardants, plastics or rocket fuel show up in our children's bodies," he continued, "we have a potentially dangerous situation."

Hundreds of industrial chemicals are now found consistently in Americans of all ages, including newborns, attested speaker after speaker during the two-hour hearing. While the mere presence of a chemical does not mean adverse health effects will result, what all testifying also noted, is that among the greatest concerns - and challenges - in protecting public health from harmful chemical exposures, is what we don't know.

One major information gap stems from the fact that most of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) inventory have not been tested for health effects. Another from the fact that, as Steven Owens, assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics noted at the Senate hearing, our knowledge of these chemicals is further limited because TSCA (the law that regulates chemicals in commerce) allows manufacturers to withhold details of chemical contents as confidential business information (CBI).

To begin reducing what Owens called "far too many CBI claims," the EPA recently announced a new policy that will allow it to reject certain claims and compel manufacturers to reveal chemical information. A "safe chemicals bill" Sen. Lautenberg plans to introduce would go further, requiring chemical manufacturers to prove chemical products safe before, as Lautenberg put it, "they end up on store shelves, in our homes, and our bodies."

Such a law (REACH), now in effect in Europe was strenuously opposed by U.S. industry (and the Bush administration) on the grounds - echoed by Sen. David Ritter (D-LA) at the February 4th hearing - that compelling industry to prove chemicals safe before commercialization would, in Vitter's words, "likely kill innovation in the U.S."

Surely something is amiss if safety and innovation can't coincide.

"We don't want to stop industry from producing legitimate helpful products," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) at the hearing's conclusion. "But when it comes to protecting public health from harmful chemicals," Whitehouse noted, "there's an imbalance" in industry's favor. Which brings me back to those pesky food can liners.

In the past year alone, the chemical industry has spent millions defending BPA when alternatives are available and not all food cans are even lined. What, I wonder, would be the outcome if such funds were instead devoted to developing products that include environmental health safety - for infants and children - as part of their performance.