Federalism can be Messy -- BPA and Product Regulation in the States
By: Kenneth Gray
This article was originally posted on the American College of Environmental Lawyers' website on September 27, 2012.
Depending on how you count, advocates have led over 25 state legislatures or regulators to consider or adopt bans on certain uses of Bisphenol A (BPA), the recently publicized monomer that is (or was) present as a residual at low levels in some plastic products. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accepted a petition from the American Chemistry Council banning use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, because the use had been abandoned by manufacturers.
For many, FDA’s scientific review of BPA studies and thoughtful analysis on the merits of regulation was too slow, and to those who conclude “I don’t want exposure to any substances of concern” use-by-use regulation did not (and will never) provide comfort. What started as a concern in baby bottles and sippy cups, and was the subject of numerous state bans several years ago -- before the FDA acted this summer to acknowledge the abandonment of BPA in those bottle and sippy cups -- is more recently the subject of additional state proposals for bans from lids of food cans and containers. Some ask: “Can you please ban it from any product that may reach my children?”
Because it is difficult to get the federal machine to act quickly, why not seek an audience in your state capital? It is easier to file legislation in many states than in Congress, easier to get exercised citizens to the state capital, easier to involve local media looking for a controversy, and cheaper for citizens to play at the state level than in Washington. However, state toxicologists and regulators often don’t have the resources of the FDA, they are often not as well equipped (and certainly not as experienced) in making the necessary risk evaluations and product regulations. And putting environmental police in the grocery aisles seems to squander limited state environmental resources. As Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho recently put it: “We’re environmental regulators. You’re asking us to be the FDA in some regards here.”
Even assuming states are equipped to address those issues, how can national manufacturers (or national or regional retailers) deal with state-by-state regulation of different products using the same materials? Not very well! And how are consumers to understand why chemicals in a product present acceptable risks in one state, but unacceptable risks in another? They don’t. Why is state-by-state regulation of chemicals in products in the national interest when FDA has jurisdiction? Maybe it isn’t.
Congressman Markey has petitioned the FDA for a federal ban on coatings in infant formula packages (arguing abandonment), and the federal agency has sought comment. But that petition was made after extensive state efforts against use in baby bottles and sippy cups. The FDA will consider the matter, so it may be some time before the FDA acts. In the interim, states are still being encouraged to adopt their own bans on certain uses of BPA.
FDA is even more broadly considering BPA safety and its uses under FDA jurisdiction, but in the meantime, keep your eye on your local legislature if you want to watch a messy process that is frustrating for everyone.