Story transcripts

The Toxic Truth

Friday, June 3, 2011

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Karen Willing

Remember when we were told that cigarettes were actually good for us?

Then there was that miracle building material - asbestos.

Now, we can add another everyday product to the 'no go' list.

Some plastics contain a compound that's been linked to all kinds of health problems - from cancer and heart disease to obesity and even brain damage.

It's called Bisphenol A or BPA and the research is so persuasive that many countries have banned it or are phasing it out.

Alarmingly, Australia isn't one of them.

But that's not the really frightening part. One of the most common uses of this nasty chemical is making baby bottles.

Story contacts:

Shop for plastics which are “BPA” free.
For more information on plastics – go to the Care 2 Website: www.care2.com

Full transcript:

LIAM BARTLETT: At Jacqui Price’s place dinner time for can be pretty hectic. Like any toddlers 4-year-old Lara and 2-year-old twins Lachie and Olivia can be demanding diners. But as chaotic as things get, Jacqui’s priority is giving the kids a healthy start in life.

JACQUI: Absolutely because there’s only thing that’s important to me and that’s the health of our kids and their happiness.

LIAM BARTLETT: But Jacqui has just discovered she may be unwittingly poisoning her children at every meal with a toxic cancer-causing chemical that lurks in everyday plastic products we all have in our kitchen cupboards.

JACQUI: I was mortified. I can’t believe that there’s toxic chemicals in the bottles that we’re giving to our kids. I can’t believe it. If I’d had any idea that the food was actually harmful there’s no way I would’ve given it to them and that makes me negligent as a parent and it makes the government more negligent than me.

LIAM BARTLETT: Like Jacqui, most of us have no idea that many plastic products harbour a chemical called Bisphenol A or BPA. It’s there to make them clear or shatterproof, but we now know BPA leaches from the plastic into our food. When ingested, it affects our hormonal system and there’s growing evidence linking it to a range of deadly diseases from cancer to heart attack. How many chemicals do you think would be in the average house?

BRUCE: Oh, thousands.

LIAM BARTLETT: And according to leading environmentalist, Bruce Lourie, children could be most at risk.

BRUCE: Things like Attention Deficit Disorder, childhood obesity, asthma, autism, and then a whole range of cancers that we’re seeing too – liver cancer, brain cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer. I mean the evidence is there. It just makes sense for governments to not let little kids be exposed to these things.

LIAM BARTLETT: Even before birth these invasive toxins are creating problems. Scientific studies are showing now that from day one, babies are being born with more than 200 chemicals in their umbilical cord blood. In one study alone, 9 out of 10 babies had Bisphenol A already in their bodies. At such a crucial development stage you have to wonder what sort of damage is being done to their tiny systems.

BRUCE: For the first time these chemicals are actually showing that you can have the mother exposed and the child actually ends up with the problem, so there’s like inter-generational things.

LIAM BARTLETT: And the invasive spread of BPA continues after birth. One of the most common places it’s found is in baby’s bottles. And new parents beware - the worst thing you can do is heat the plastic in a microwave. That increases the level of BPA leaching from the bottle.

BRUCE: These hormones aren’t supposed to be getting into your body triggering the kinds of developmental things that hormones do trigger in a body when you’re three months old or six months old. I mean, they simply shouldn’t be there.

LIAM BARTLETT: For many years chemical companies claimed BPA couldn’t transfer from plastic, but Bruce and his colleague Rick Smith set out to prove them wrong - making themselves human guinea pigs. They used a range of everyday products containing BPA – even drinking from baby bottles, then they tested how much they’d ingested in just two days, revealing their findings in their book, ‘Slow Death By Rubber Duck’.

BRUCE: Take Bisphenol A for example, just that one experiment drinking out of the baby bottles, microwaving food in plastic uh we saw a 7 1/2 times increase of this chemical in 48 hours. So imagine an infant that’s getting virtually all of its nutrition in the early days of its lives heated up in a plastic bottle. I mean, their Bisphenol A levels are going to be you know off the roof.

LIAM BARTLETT: Armed with such overwhelming evidence, Bruce successfully lobbied to have BPA banned in his homeland of Canada. Denmark, France and six American States have since followed suit. If you go shopping for a baby bottle here in Canada you can be guaranteed that it’s safe. None of these contain Bisphenol A or BPA. That toxic chemical is banned right across the board. But for Australian parents inexplicably it’s a dangerous game of hit and miss. Some shops choose to sell BPA-free bottles. Some don’t. It’s pure chance as to whether your baby is exposed to this poison. Canada has moved to put BPA on its official list of toxic substances. Why would they do that if they think it’s safe?

MELANIE: Is that true?

LIAM BARTLETT: Are you right there? You don’t know about that?

MELANIE: I’m sorry I’d have to check that.

LIAM BARTLETT: You don’t know about that? Melanie Fisher should know. She’s the General Manager of Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the very department we entrust with the safety of the food we eat. President Obama’s own cancer panel in a report 12 months ago said this and I quote “a growing link between BPA and several diseases, including various cancers”. What part of the word ‘cancer’ don’t you understand?

MELANIE: The authors of that study were really careful to point out that you can’t draw conclusions about the - that BPA is causing these problems from that one study.

LIAM BARTLETT: No.

MELANIE: They looked very carefully at those studies . . .

LIAM BARTLETT: No, no, no, no. What they say is the relevance of those results in terms of human health cannot be assessed at this time.

MELANIE: That’s right.

LIAM BARTLETT: But if any new data becomes available, they’ll reconsider their opinion.

MELANIE: That’s right and that’s the view we take as well.

JACQUI: If there are other countries around the world that can ban it, why can’t Australia? We’re not a third world country. I feel like the government’s let us down. How can I go to the supermarket and buy a baby bottle and give it to my child and then find out it’s actually causing them harm?

LIAM BARTLETT: Jacqui Price isn’t alone in her concerns. At her local mother’s group, most parents knew little about BPA or how to avoid it.

KIM: So how can you tell when something has BPA and it doesn’t?

LIAM BARTLETT: Mariann Lloyd-Smith from the National Toxics Network is doing her best to spread the word.

MARIANN: Not all polycarbonate has BPA but you can bet your bottom dollar the bulk of it does.

LIAM BARTLETT: But if you’re a parent, how would you know about BPA to start with?

MARIANN: Look, you wouldn’t unless you were reading the literature all the time, keeping up with studies. It would be impossible to know about BPA,

LIAM BARTLETT: Incredibly, the one sign we do have to identify dangerous plastics isn’t there as a warning – it’s to indicate how easily it can be recycled. Best to buy are numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5. Avoid number 3 and 6 for other chemicals. And number 7 means BPA. Confusing to say the least and by no means a failsafe.

MARIANN: There’s no number there and then the other place of course you would check is on the label but it doesn’t look like there’s a number there.

LIAM BARTLETT: And it says nothing about BPA?

MARIANN: No.

LIAM BARTLETT: So we assume this product is full of BPA?

MARIANN: I would assume that that’s polycarbonate with BPA in it, yes I would.

LIAM BARTLETT: Australia’s only response to the growing scientific evidence has been a request to retailers to voluntarily phase out BPA baby bottles. So let me get this straight, the science is strong enough for you to tell manufacturers that they should voluntarily get rid of it but you’re not going to ban it?

MELANIE: That’s right.

LIAM BARTLETT: So if you’re wrong in a year’s time then you’ll ban it?

MELANIE: If we’re wrong in a year’s time, then we’ll regulate. But the thing about BPA, it’s about a lifetime of exposure, so a couple of years exposure isn’t going to be a problem.

LIAM BARTLETT: In the meantime, it’s a lottery out there. A few months after the voluntary phase-out began we went shopping at two major retailers. Even products with the same brand name may or may not contain BPA. On others, the labelling was so scant there was no way of knowing.

LIAM BARTLETT: Is that good enough?

MARIANN: Oh, no it’s far from good enough and certainly BPA is one of those chemicals that has no place in children’s products. It’s got no place in our food chain, we shouldn’t have it any form of food packaging whatsoever.

LIAM BARTLETT: The danger is that while we lag behind other countries in banning BPA, manufacturers know they can off-load their suspect product on unsuspecting Aussies.

BRUCE: You’re going to end up being the dumping ground for all the rest of the BPA bottles around the world if you, you know if you don’t move ahead and ban them, so that I mean that would be the risk.

LIAM BARTLETT: Help me understand the logic you’re using here. You would rather take a risk on the science being right down the track, than guarantee the health of Aussie kids?

MELANIE: Not at all. We’re very focused on the safety of food and the safety of Australians, and so that’s why we’ve put so much effort into reviewing the science and to talking to our international regulatory counterparts about this.

LIAM BARTLETT: But in the meantime, what’s the problem with banning it? The plastics industry doesn’t need it. The kids will be guaranteed to be safe.

MELANIE: We’re required to operate on the basis of science and the science says that BPA is safe.

LIAM BARTLETT: So for now, it’s up to mums and dads to refuse to buy BPA products and lodge their complaints with retailers.

JACQUI: Well, the first thing I’m going to do is go out and buy new bottles and glassware and share this information with other parents so that their kids aren’t at risk either.

BRUCE: It’s kind of a no-brainer - you’re making kids safer. Like, what – like, why - what’s - how hard is it to make that decision?

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