Furthest Right

Bisphenol-A: why no one is surprised

By “no one,” I mean those who have been around long enough to be realistic in expectation and understanding of how the world — both human and natural — functions.

This excludes people who are prone to panic, who have no understanding of science and critical theory (that’s a logical AND, there, meaning “both or no dice”), and those who are using political issues to make themselves seem more important, moral, etc.

People who are in the know in realistic ways are not surprised at two trends that define modern society:

  1. An endless flood of panics from the media
  2. A different stream of actual threats unnoticed by the crowd

Fear sells, and the best panic is one that resolves into ambiguity, so it or something like it can be sold again.

However, because people are looking for marketable panics, they downplay the mundane — which is where threats are most likely to occur, in our assumptions and daily actions.

Immanuel Kant wrote about “radical evil” which is evil in the most mundane places, participated in by most people, and unnoticed because hey others are doing it. Radical evil is present in both false panics and ignoring mundane threats, instead preferring to bloviate about Satan or totalitarian governments, neither of which compare to the real threat to us, which is our own inattention and distraction.

So now we find out that this Bisphenol-A stuff, which is in just about everything, is bad news and we’ve been using it since the 1950s:

Exposure to bisphenol A, the hormonally active chemical used to make the linings of most tin cans and hard plastic bottles, may be able to alter brain function, impairing the ability to learn and remember, according to a new study by researchers from Canada and the United States.

The study, conducted on monkeys, whose brain development is similar to that of humans, raises the possibility that ailments such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia may be linked to the controversial chemical.

Almost all people living in industrialized societies are exposed to BPA as a result of trace amounts leaking from food and beverage containers.

The Globe and Mail

The topic immediately became politicized.

Conservatives and many scientists, tired of the panics, lashed out by saying that this was a liberal agenda to gain more control. Liberals returned fire by saying it was a clear case of entrenched industry corrupting government to protect a bad but lucrative practice.

And then, at the end of the day, it was the giant Satan retailer that everyone loves to hate who led the way in solving the problem. (Whether that’s free markets at work, or lawyers afraid of future lawsuits, or just enlightened leadership deciding that if they have the power, why not go for the best outcome, is up to you.)

Now that the dragon is slain, and Bisphenol-A (or BPA) is falling out of use, we face an urge to conduct a postmortem and figure out where we went wrong.

While others are pointing fingers at big conspiracy theories (left) or overreaction (right), I submit a simpler, more mundane, and boring yet infinitely more likely scenario: apathy and that kind of corruption that only happens when “don’t rock the boat” and “that’s the way it has always been around here” replace an urge to drive toward truth regardless of consequences. Because truth, like Satan, knows no master.

What would this corruption look like? For starters, you have to please a crowd. That may be voters or a series of disaffected people working in the chemical industry who are so tired of internal politics they smash dissent as a way of keeping on course. It could even be FDA inspectors who use lab results to find immediate problems, but do not have the funding to follow up with real-world studies or statistical measurements over a lifetime.

This corruption could even be an environment where a new product, once it becomes trendy, forces its way into every place because you don’t want to oppose what’s making your neighbors money and keeping them happy, right? I mean, they say they’re happy and all, so we assume it’s true.

Imagine a federal agency, like the FDA. There’s immense pressure on this agency to approve products because jobs and national prestige are riding on the issue, as is the convenience of voters. If you don’t approve a medication or product that the people want, a world of hell is coming down on your shoulders.

This is where it gets interesting. Organizations are composed of people; we tend to forget that. People have multiple allegiances. They want to do what’s right, but they must please their superiors as those superiors must please politicians and voters. But they also have allegiance to themselves and their family.

If you find a problem with a product, as a researcher, and you see that the forces promoting that product are strong, you need to make a choice: truth or career.

When your wife and kids look up at you in a homeless shelter, moral good is a distant theory. These people leaning on you can be politicians, industry, or most likely, the voter: they want their products and want them now. The voter also influences industry, with what the voter wants to buy, and politicians, with what public opinion is.

Think of it another way: if you as a genetics researcher found out that all Irish or Italian people carried a gene that made them low-IQ sociopaths inclined to cause social decay, would you publish? I sure wouldn’t. You know you’d face big guns empowered by the outrage of the crowd at singling any group out, and someone with less scientific honor would cook up some study “proving” that you’re an idiot, probably through dubious statistical means. Twenty years later, you’d be vindicated — maybe — which would probably not mean much to your divorced family and homeless shelter housemates.

In addition to the mundane evil of social pressure skewing results, there’s another problem of method. Scientists often say that a product is safe when they find no ill results after overexposure. However, that’s a lab result — in any meaningful reality, with other toxins and chemicals present, unforeseen interactions and consequences may occur.

We thought we were past all these problems. Hatters going mad from mercury, and ladies poisoned by lead in their makeup — those are problems from ancient history when people must have been dumber, right? We’d never make such errors; we have Science! But science is undercut by the social factors, individual motivations, and political maneuvering, and so we repeat history in a cyclic fashion.

History, after all, is both linear — our progression from ape to man to whatever better thing comes after man — and cyclic, in that if you respond the same way to roughly a similar situation, you’ll get the same results no matter how advanced your science or social thinking is. Bisphenol-A shows us making the mistakes of the past again because we have the same corruption of logic by politics and individual greed, apathy, distraction, oblivion, confusion and pretentious obsessive self-focus.

And how long have we known?

Hunt, a geneticist, was exploring why human reproduction is so rife with complications. She had a hunch the chromosomally abnormal eggs that plague human pregnancies were tied to our hormones. A paper outlining the results of Hunt’s experiments on the hormone levels of female mice was ready for publication. All she needed was to ensure that her control population, the mice left alone in the study, was normal. Instead Hunt stumbled on a disturbing result—40 percent had egg defects.

Hunt shelved hopes of publication and scrutinized every method and piece of lab equipment used in her experiment. Four months later she finally fingered a suspect.

It was the janitor. In the laboratory. With the floor cleaner.

A single breach in protocol had turned the rodents’ safe environs into acutely toxic habitats. A maintenance worker had used an abrasive floor cleaner, instead of the usual mild detergent, to wash out cages and water bottles. The acidic solution scarred the hard, polycarbonate surface of the plastic and enabled a single chemical culprit to leach out—bisphenol-A (BPA).

Scientific American

That was in 1998.

Bisphenol-A went into use in the 1950s.

You mean no one followed up on the original idea? Well, they thought they didn’t have to:

But during the manufacturing process, not all BPA gets locked into chemical bonds, explains Tim A. Osswald, an expert in polymer engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. That residual BPA can work itself free, especially when the plastic is heated, whether it’s a Nalgene bottle in the dishwasher, a food container in the microwave, or a test tube being sterilized in an autoclave.

They had been assuming that because a chemical tends to form bonds, it always does, and that those bonds then remain consistent despite far more vigorous conditions than those in a laboratory.


This ignorant thinking is borne of a single tendency: politics. Don’t rock the boat. Millions of jobs are on the line. Millions of people want their products. Shaking this tree will make you unpopular. So don’t — and if you get bitter, say “screw it” and hope they all die of BPA poisoning, join the club. We’re all heart-poisoned by politics too.

This is why a lower-case-c conservatism makes sense: each new thing we add has potential threats, and because of social pressures, no one is watching. We need to be aware of our tendency to delude ourselves with politics, and distract ourselves to death, and guard against that bad logic — no matter how popular, meaning profitable and self-promotional, it is.

If we want to move on to our next evolutionary stage, where we evolve to a consciousness broader than self-consciousness, and so can make better decisions, we’re going to have to kick this politics addiction and some point and become truthful, less polite, more direct, and more attentive. No more spacing out like watching afternoon TV with a vodka martini. No more pretending problems solve themselves, or that the problem is governments, industries, etc. when the real problem is our inattention.

Let’s hope that we continue to find more horrible toxic products so that we learn this lesson well — from pain and tragedy, as that is the only way that humans seem to learn.

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