One night not too long ago, as my wife Katherine and I settled into the kitchen to make some pasta sauce, I reached into the cupboard for a can of our favorite organic, fire-roasted tomatoes. These tomatoes were expensive, and, we'd always thought, entirely worth it.
Like many such products, the tomatoes were packed in a can that came with a full array of marketing cues: plump fruit ripening on the vine; the word "organic" splashed not just across the top of the can but emblazoned in the (now-ubiquitous) USDA organic logo below as well. Another line boasted that the can was packed in "lead-free" enamel. Clearly, the company's marketing department had figured out that -- for a certain segment of shoppers, anyway -- what is left out of a product is as important as what is put in.
On a whim, Katherine decided to put a call into the company anyway. She had been hearing that many canned fruits and vegetables were packed in cans lined with Bisphenol A, a plastic that is a known hormone disruptor. At the time, a couple of years ago, BPA had been in the news a lot: reports had been surfacing, for example, that the chemical leaked from plastic baby bottles into breast milk. Studies were emerging that consistently linked the chemical to breast cancer, testicular cancer, and a host of reproductive problems. A handful of states had become so alarmed by the chemical they had banned it outright (though, frustratingly, often only from products that wound up in baby's mouths).
When a spokesperson came back on the phone and said our beloved "organic" tomatoes had in fact been packed -- marinating, you might say -- in a can lined with BPA, Katherine and I were left pondering not just the meaning of the word "organic" but the reliability of labels generally. There was no mention of BPA on the can. Should tomatoes that were grown without pesticides still be considered "organic" if they'd been steeping in BPA? And come to think of it, when was the last time you saw mention of any ingredient for any package of the food you eat?
Should we be worried?
This week, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reporting that consumption of a single serving of canned soup daily over five days resulted in over a 1000 percent increase in urinary BPA. The study, published in the JJournal of the American Medical Association confirms what health and consumer advocates have been saying for years: there are too many synthetic toxins in too many everyday products; there is too little known about these toxins; and there is too little information about any of it for consumers to make intelligent decisions. And as Katherine and I discovered, this is true even if you try to eat "organic." It has become almost impossible to shop your way out of our toxic world.
So what to do? Noting that the CDC has discovered 212 chemicals "coursing through Americans' bodies," Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has once again introduced a bill that would update -- for the first time in 35 years -- the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, the law overseeing chemical regulation. The law is so antiquated that the Government Accountability Office has called it "high risk." Under Lautenberg's bill, the EPA would survey the 80,000 chemicals in common use today, only 200 of which have ever been adequately tested for their impact on human health. Chemicals the EPA considers risky would be required to be tested further. Rather than assume their products are safe, in other words, companies would have to prove it. This has been the model in Europe for years.
Industry, of course, has mastered the discourse of skepticism and dismissal. At a hearing on the Lautenberg bill last week in Washington, lobbyists from the American Chemistry Council continued to maintain -- as they have for 35 years -- that existing laws are adequate. Given industry's influence in Washington, there is little reason to be optimistic about the bill's fate; if the bill fails, the regulation of toxic chemicals will be left, again, to consumer advocates, and to the states.
There has been some progress. Due to market pressure, the company that made our organic tomatoes, Muir Glen, a subsidiary of General Mills, says it has now switched to cans made without BPA. States such as Maine, Maryland, California and Oregon have succeeded in banning individual chemicals, from BPA to flame retardants, that have been shown to be both dangerous and common in people's bodies. But each regulatory effort, for each chemical, in each state, is resisted with an aggressive lobbying campaign by industry. Indeed, with 50 states and 80,000 chemicals, this is just the way industry would like regulation to proceed: one chemical, in one state, at a time. At this rate, it will be a long time before any of us can walk the aisles of a supermarket with any real confidence.