I’m sure you’ve heard about the article written for Mother Jones by Mariah Blake on the dangers of plastics used to replace BPA. After years of protracted struggle, parents and environmentalists managed to get BPA banned from use in a wide variety of products, particularly products that affect children. The concern is that BPA has been shown for many years to be an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen.
BPA is only one of a growing number of chemicals present in products, food, and our environment that mimic estrogen, a hormone needed by both men and women, along with other hormones. Those chemicals include pesticides and herbicides used on foods crops.
With BPA banned, manufacturers turned to alternative materials. But the materials they chose are as bad or worse than BPA in disrupting our endocrine system. In fact, as the article points out, almost all plastics used in common products are endocrine disruptors: polyethylene terephthalate used in soda and water bottles and in peanut butter, mouthwash, ketchup, and dressing containers; high-density polyethylene used in baby bottles, packaging, cutting boards, toys, ice cube trays, and milk jugs; polypropylene used in sippy cups, straws, and storage containers; polystyrene used in takeout containers, egg cartons, and meat and fish trays; polycarbonate used in dishes, drinking glasses, water bottles, and syringes; polylactic acid used in packaging for fruits and vegetables, yogurt cups, and disposable utensils.
And then there are the materials that haven’t been tested. There’s polyvinyl chloride used in deli containers, pill blister packs, and plastic wrap; and there’s low-density polyethylene used in squeeze bottles, closable food storage bags, and also for plastic wrap.
I hate to remind you that “haven’t been tested” means no one knows whether these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, which does not mean that they are safe. It means “we don’t know,” which means we’re rolling the dice. Given what’s known about those other wonders of polymer chemistry, a reasonable person might want to exercise caution.
As I’m sure you know, endocrine disruptors are associated with a wide variety of medical conditions, including some very significant public health problems: obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, infertility, neurodegenerative diseases, immune disruption, and autoimmune diseases, which means that these chemicals can cause the body to attack itself. There’s also good reason to believe that the effects of endocrine disruptors reach down through the generations to our great-grandchildren and beyond.
What went wrong? All that political effort resulted in manufacturers replacing one poison with another—after years and years of malingering and foot-dragging and denial and fussing about lost revenue.
As you might expect, there’s a tawdry political history that is a demonstration of regulatory capture of public health by the industry supposedly regulated: industry throws its money and muscle around; scientists either become flacks or come under attack; industry-based science mongers doubt providing cover for political operatives. So what seems to have gone wrong is that regulation failed.
But it did not. It did exactly what regulation is supposed to do: protect industry first and make it behave itself second. And “behave itself” doesn’t mean “have humane and environmentally sane values.” It means “play fair” by the ideals of the Progressive era and its champion Teddy Roosevelt, hero to Barack Obama, which means “play by the rules of the market,” which means (in Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase) “take much too much or you’ll get nothing at all.” But be nice about it.
I’m not heading toward a denunciation of the moral vacuum that is the corporate form of the capitalist mode of production nor of the craven values of the actual men and women who breath life (and death) into the fictional person that is the corporation nor of the involuntary medical experiments to which we and our children and our grandchildren are daily subjected because regulatory agencies we’ve been told and believe to exist for our protection only do so as an unintended consequence of their operation despite the law and the oratory.
It doesn’t matter whether the chemical industry and the people who populate it are evil. What matters is that they own the means of production—meaning that those people have the social power to determine how those means of production are put to use. Those people also, for all practical purposes, own the means of public health—meaning that they have the social power social power to determine how those means of public health are put to use. It is an inevitable consequence of the capitalist mode of production and liberal democracy, the form of governance in which one person has one vote and the majority rules and in which practically (and increasingly legally) one dollar has one vote and the majority, now of dollars, still rules.
The only effective way to protect ourselves from these depredations is rule by consensus: no one gets to conduct a medical experiment on you without your consent. In such a system, if you don’t want BPA in a product, then the product doesn’t get produced until a material is used that you approve. Not a collective “you” nor a majoritarian, liberal democratic “you,” but a singular “you.”
I can hear howls objecting that progress will be brought to a halt when one person can stop the introduction of useful and even life-saving innovations. You mean progress such as the use of the toxicant BPA or its replacement by an equally harmful substance?