Since SNEWS® first addressed the issue of BPA leeching into water in a Nov. 12, 2003, story, "Sierra magazine story causes stir over Lexan safety" (click here to read), the curiosity and mild concern over possible human health impacts has turned into a feeding frenzy whipped up by government and media reports and devoured by consumers.
On Dec. 6, 2007, Canadian retailer MEC announced that it was pulling all polycarbonate bottles from its shelves "until guidance is provided by the government of Canada on the health risks posed by BPA." (Click here to read the SNEWS® story.)
Though it is impossible to find consensus among the scientific community whether BPA --bisphenol A, an industrial chemical used primarily to make polycarbonate plastic -- poses health hazards by leeching into food and drink, public perception has fueled polycarbonate's demise as a food and drink container.
In April, the avalanche of bad news heated up for polycarbonate manufacturers when the Canadian government proposed a ban on BPA in that country. As other outdoor retailers started making the decision to pull bottles from shelves, Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us announced they would stop selling baby bottles containing BPA. In short order, it seemed everyone wanted to be seen as reacting to consumer well-being. One morning TV show ran coverage that bordered on the ridiculous, even pointing to plastics on display as being hazardous to the public's health when, in fact, they weren't polycarbonate at all.
The writing of polycarbonate's doom that some felt was on the wall in December became written in stone on April 18 when Nalgene -- singled out unfairly as the poster child of BPA fears due to its enormous popularity -- announced it would be phasing out the production of polycarbonate bottles in its outdoor consumer line. While still clinging to the notion that science was in its corner, Nalgene's Steven Silverman, general manager of the Nalgene business, was quoted in a company press release as saying, "Based on all available scientific evidence, we continue to believe that Nalgene products containing BPA are safe for their intended use. However, our customers indicated they preferred BPA-free alternatives and we acted in response to those concerns." And with that, consumer perception had trumped science.
Perhaps what was surprising in all of this is that Nalgene appeared to be blindsided by consumer reaction. It has a phenomenal line of alternative products to polycarbonate, and we in SNEWS® headquarters still drink out of some of our original HDPT (polyethylene) bottles with the trademark blue cap. Sure, it does not look as cool as the brightly colored polycarbonate versions, and yes, it gives water a slight taste, but it is a plastic accepted by most recycling programs and it is proven to be a healthy and safe drink container for a long time.
When the first concerns about BPA began surfacing, those who produced bottles made of polycarbonate would have done well to pay attention to consumer sentiment that is built on the foundation of trust, rather than simply trotting out studies from various scientific circles to try to prove fears unfounded. Consumers inherently distrust government and self-funded studies, especially when a consumer's health -- especially the health of children -- might be at risk.
The new website, Nalgene Choice (www.nalgenechoice.com), provides consumers information and choice beautifully. We wonder what might have happened had Nalgene launched that site, say, two years ago. Maybe some folks would have opted out of polycarbonate, but we suspect the sales of its other products would have more than compensated. It would have been perceived as a company proactively in touch with its consumers instead of reactively responding to negative media and consumer demand. Hindsight is 20/20, to be sure.
The irony in all of this is that we are collectively experiencing far more exposure to BPA through the lining of canned goods than from any water bottle we've ever used. Every can on every kitchen shelf is likely lined with an epoxy coating that contains BPA. Likely too, aluminum bottles, including those made by SIGG, Laken and others are lined with epoxy as well and, as a result, also contain BPA -- though both SIGG and Laken are quick to point out that their linings do not leach measurable quantities of BPA into water. Yes, the canned food industry is now scrambling to find alternatives too, but no one is suffering quite the brunt of scorn and media ridicule as Nalgene. The company was an easy and, as we've stated, unfair target. But, that's now moot. By this time next year, we expect that polycarbonate bottles and containers still in the retail pipeline will have been depleted, replaced instead with alternatives, including the new Eastman product Tritan. Of course, who knows if some scientist down the road will not find something bad about Tritan, too. Only time will tell, but let's hope for the best.
We were recently reminded just how ridiculous this issue has become when we spoke with a contractor working on our office property the other day. He was sipping out of a metal bottle, and when we asked him about it, he responded, "Plastic will kill you. I'm drinking out of this because it's safer." While so very far from the truth, it is what he believed, and that is all that mattered when he made his choice as to what container to use.
For retailers, as you work through whether to sell your existing polycarbonate bottles (Nalgene and GSI are not exchanging bottles. Camelbak is allowing its retailers to upgrade to Tritan), we'd recommend providing your customers with the opportunity to make a choice. Currently, there is no absolutely conclusive scientific evidence that bisphenol A -- which appears to mimic the effects of estrogen -- creates increased risks of early onset puberty, uterine fibroids, decreased sperm counts, prostate cancer or breast cancer. However, there is acknowledgement now that scientific findings increasingly warrant, as the U.S. government's National Toxicology Program stated, a "higher level of concern…"
Give your consumers a choice. Clearly mark polycarbonate bottles that contain BPA and explain the possible risk. Display the Tritan alternative, as well as polypropylene, polyethylene and stainless steel bottles, and explain each one's pros and cons with signage. Be sure your staff is fully educated. We've chatted with a few over the last number of weeks, and we'd have to say the confusion at retail is almost as prevalent as the confusion among consumers. For more information, we'd recommend checking out The Green Guide and its tutorial on plastics by clicking here.
It is healthy, perhaps, to realize this is not altogether new. For those of you old enough to remember, we all went through something like this years ago, when it was discovered aluminum particles, the kind scraped off pots and pans used in cooking, led to increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. Stainless steel sales went through the roof as aluminum mess kits, pots and pan sales collapsed. We got through that then, with education and empowering the consumer with choice, and we'll all get through this now, and perhaps we'll all have learned a little something along the way too.