Uncertainty for BPA Bill in Rhode Island

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — While other states and countries have banned or are moving ahead with controls on an additive found in plastic bottles for children and in nearly all soda and soup cans, Rhode Island is, for now, keeping its shelves stocked with the controvertial preservative bisphenol A — better know as BPA.

Several studies in recent years have linked BPA to reproductive abnormalities, impaired brain function, cancer, early puberty and obesity. The research has prompted Vermont, Washington, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Minnesota to enact BPA restrictions. Last month, Maine banned BPA in baby bottles. Canada declared BPA a toxin last year, and both Canada and the European Union have banned the chemical for use in baby bottles.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offered guidance for addressing "concerns" with BPA. Industry also has stepped up, as companies such as Gerber, Platex and Avent removed BPA from baby bottles. Several Rhode Island retailers have stopped using or are phasing the use of BPA-coated receipts.

But the chemical industry has no such interest in bans. In November, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) successfully lobbied Congress to kill a provision in a food safety bill that would have banned BPA from baby bottles.

The same forces may have been at work in Rhode Island. The current bill being heard by the House Committee on Health Education and Welfare would ban BPA in reusable food and beverage containers and cans, jars and plastic containers for infant food and baby formula. After hearing from the ACC and other groups April 6, the committee voted to hold the bill for further study.

Before she could even attempt to sway legislators to act on House bill 5499, Liberty Goodwin of the Providence-based Toxics Information Project got word that the legislation appeared to be a goner.

"Unless there is some grassroots organization, it's easier for (legislators) to go along with what business wants, which is business as usual," she said. "There is nobody screaming about it."

At many committee hearings, Goodwin said she's often the only one speaking on behalf of the public about harmful chemicals. She's typically opposed by well-paid and well-spoken lobbyists from business advocacy groups, like the ACC. A call to the ACC was not returned.

Goodwin said the legislative process is confusing, which makes it hard for public participation. "Going up against a business interest is like going up against a brick wall," she said.

Goodwin has been advocating for restrictions on BPA, lawn chemicals and cleaning products since 2001. But because of a lack of a larger, organized movement, she's largely shifted her energy to education instead of speaking at committee hearings. "We've pulled back from lobbying, it just isn't effective," she said.

Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Cranston/Warwick, a co-sponsor of bill H5499, said a drawback in the legislation is that it might be too "narrow in scope." Support for the bill, he said, also has come from the Rhode Island State Nurses Association. But he wants more information on the availability of BPA-free products, so "if it does pass it won't be a hardship for anyone." But he said he doesn't doubt the health concerns. "The science behind it is fairly credible," he said.

The state Department of Health also recognizes that BPA merits attention, but has said it lacks the money and staff to fully investigate the health risks. For now, the department takes its guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, which last year reported "some concerns about the potential effects of BPA." But, so far, the FDA hasn't done much to address those concerns.