A Tale of Two Governors: Protecting the Public from Bisphenol A

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  

Last week, I wrote about the new Governor in Maine, Paul LePage, who gained instant notoriety when he declared the science demonstrating the potential harm of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic, estrogen-like chemical to be inadequate, and, in the same breath, demonstrated his own cluelessness about the potential effects of estrogen, as opposed to testosterone in the body. The public record already establishes that the Governor is relying heavily on the advice and services of chemical industry lobbyists – the same lobbyists who, in 2008, opposed the legislature’s overwhelming and bi-partisan adoption of legislation to identify toxic chemicals of concern, like BPA, and prioritize certain of those chemicals for restrictions on their use. That law, the Kid Safe Products Act, led directly to the state Board of Environmental Protection’s approval last year of restrictions on uses of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, as well as reusable water bottles.  Those restrictions now need to be approved by Maine’s legislature. 

Governor Le Page and his newly-appointed staff of industry lobbyists are geared up to oppose legislative approval.  Unfortunately, that’s what happens when you put someone in charge who doesn’t know, and doesn’t care (apparently) about science, health or the environment, and whose “business model” for running the state is putting the chemical industry in charge of health and environmental issues (they literally wrote up the list of environmental and health protections that he wants the legislature to roll back, and then sent it over to his office).  Not a pretty picture. 

The situation isn’t totally bleak however.  The legislature appears to remain comfortable with and strongly committed to its previous enactment of the Kid Safe Products Act, and the consequential restrictions on the use of BPA.  And why shouldn’t they be?  In the time since Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection voted to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, and reusable beverage bottles – joining eight other states that have taken similar action – the European Union enacted its own ban (it just took effect this week) and China announced a similar ban (Canada has also banned it). It is hard to believe that at this point a majority of legislators in Maine, whatever their party affiliation, would align themselves with a Governor who most recently entered the nation’s consciousness as a buffoon on the issue of science and health.  But, you can’t underestimate the power or money of the chemical industry, and, when it comes to regulation of BPA, or any other chemical, they’ll say or do anything (no, really, anything) to block action to protect people.

Contrast the situation in Maine to where things stand in Oregon, which also has a new (albeit returning) Governor, John Kitzhaber.  As it happens, the Oregon state legislature is considering a bill this legislative session to ban the sale of children’s beverage containers (baby bottles and sippy cups) as well as reusable water bottles and infant formula cans containing BPA.  As in Maine, there is bi-partisan support for protecting the public from exposure to unsafe (or even questionably safe) toxic chemicals. The bill that will come up for a hearing in the state Senate's Environment and Natural Resources Committee next week has Republicans and Democrats as lead co-sponsors. 

One thing that should help the effort is the strong support for the legislation being offered by Governor Kitzhaber.  At a recent teletownhall meeting sponsored by the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV), (and attended by more than 3,000 Oregonians!) Governor Kitzhaber kicked off the proceedings with a strong endorsement of the legislation.   You can actually listen to the Governor’s remarks here (they start at minute 3:35).  Notice that he is actually informed about the science, and has a clear understanding about the importance of protecting the public, and small children, babies, and pregnant moms from exposure to BPA and other unsafe chemicals.

So, what is the critical difference between these two Governors?  Is it that one is a Democrat, and the other is a Republican?  I don’t think so.  BPA legislation as well as broader chemical policy reform laws have been adopted across the country with overwhelmingly bi-partisan support, and signed into law by Democratic, Republican and Independent Governors.

Is it that Governor Kitzhaber is a medical doctor by profession, who has a thorough understanding of health and science to inform his views on these kinds of issues, whereas Governor LePage’s education was in business (including an MBA) and his career was as a businessman?  Not necessarily. There are any number of politicians who come from the medical profession and are consistent opponents of environmental health legislation, and men and women from business backgrounds who are just as fervent in their support for strengthening our laws to protect the public from toxic chemicals.  So, education and career are not necessarily predictors of world view.

I think the key difference has to do with Governor LePage’s decision to surround himself with lobbyists for the chemical industry as his close advisors on matters pertaining to the environment and public health.  Look, there is no reason to expect that the Governor will be conversant with the more than 200 studies linking BPA to a range of potential health concerns including cancer, reproductive and developmental harm.  That isn’t his background, and this probably isn’t the only thing he is thinking about as Governor (although weakening environmental and health protections does appear to be at the very top of his agenda). 

When Governor LePage stated that as far as he was aware, there wasn’t any science suggesting that BPA was a real problem, he said that his view was “based on the studies I’ve seen.”  Fair enough.  But it is more likely than not that he hasn’t seen any of the studies that have generated both concern and action around the world because he is walled off from that reality and is getting his mis-information from the chemical industry/his staff.  The Governor’s comments were his own, but their proximate cause was bad staffing.   

The Governor should learn from his mistake.  It isn’t too early to make a change in his administration that will ensure that he is both more independent and better informed about the issues (certainly environment and health issues).  The Governor should clean house, kick the industry lobbyists out (they’ll land quite comfortably back at high-salaried law firm jobs) and surround himself with staff who are serious about giving him the facts on the issues, not just the spin that best suits their paid industry clients.  Then, if Gov. Le Page still has questions about a science-based issue like regulation of BPA or other toxic chemicals, he could pick up the phone and make a cross-country call to Governor Kitzhaber who could set him straight on the science of BPA, the difference between estrogen and testosterone, and the importance of protecting children, and all people, from cancer-causing and other toxic chemicals.

To follow the action in Maine up close, and to offer support in defending Maine's health protections from chemical industry attacks, be sure to visit the website of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, which, along with many other great groups and individuals in Maine, is not intimidated by the new Governor or his team of chemical industry advisors.

In Oregon, as in Maine, (and every other state that has taken on the fight over BPA, not to mention the U.S. Congress) the chemical industry will use its money and muscle to try and defeat their BPA bill.  So public support from Oregonians (including, ahem, my two sisters!) will be key to ensure it is enacted. You can track the progress of the campaign and get involved at the facebook page for BPA-FreeOregon