'Not in my kitchen' is easier said than done
The controversial chemical bisphenol A was not on my radar screen back in 2008, when I ordered a polycarbonate electric food steamer from Target.com. I thought I had purchased a nifty appliance, which offered a clever and fun way to cook dinner.
Not so fun were the news stories I started reading soon after. These articles reported research questioning the safety of polycarbonate in food applications, because that plastic contains BPA. It seemed each week a new study came out, implicating the widely used chemical in potential health problems, including neurological damage, diabetes and cancer.
Determined to get the chemical out of my kitchen, I stopped buying canned foods, because most had an epoxy resin lining containing BPA. I took a closer look at my cooking tools and didn’t like what I saw. Especially worrisome were the polycarbonate ones employing heat, because high temperatures can cause BPA to leach out.
Five months after buying the steamer, I tried unsuccessfully to return it to Target, where customer service would not override the standard 90-day return window, even though I explained my worries about BPA. Target suggested I contact the manufacturer, West Bend.
But I also struck out with West Bend, because the steamer was not under recall and the product materials were FDA approved.
I stashed the steamer in our garage, where it remained until last month when I tripped over the box. This got me wondering if West Bend and Target had changed their policies. After all, a lot has happened in the world of bisphenol A since 2008. “BPA Free” now is a rallying cry on many store shelves, including Target. Several food manufacturers have started using alternative linings in their canned foods, and some stores are eliminating thermal-paper cash register receipts coated with BPA. Eleven states have passed laws banning the chemical in bottles and cups for infants.
Even the American Chemistry Council, which has vigorously fought bans of the chemical, recently took the paradoxical position of asking federal regulators to make sure BPA is not used in baby bottles and sippy cups. (The industry group pointed out that the six leading manufacturers of baby bottles have not used BPA in those products since 2009.)
On its website the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warns that “BPA levels rise in food when containers/products made with the chemical are heated and come in contact with the food.”
Given all that, I was surprised to get a blast from the past when I called West Bend: they still would not take back the steamer because there is no recall of the product and its components are FDA approved. I made clear my intent was not to get a refund. I simply was curious if the company had any kind of policy regarding polycarbonate appliances, in light of all the new evidence about BPA.
Not only is there no such policy, the steamer continues to be manufactured and sold at Target and other retailers. With all the headlines about BPA, you have to wonder – why the heck is anyone still making and selling polycarbonate cooking tools?
Asked to comment, a West Bend spokesperson emailed:
“When products are conceived and designed, we consider all material options for the application and are sensitive as well to environmental and social factors. Coupled with FDA guidelines and mandates, we choose materials we feel will best support the product and ultimately the customer.”
A Target spokesperson emailed: “Target does offer a variety of BPA-free products. Guests may return products only if the product is either part of a recall or if the product falls within our normal return policy.”
A cynic might say, oh well, we’re surrounded by dangerous chemicals. Even if a plastic product is BPA-free, it might leach some other compound when heated. But many scientists insist that very low-dose BPA exposure is linked to health problems. So it would seem wise for consumers and manufacturers to eliminate exposure when they can.
But if we want to rid our kitchens of BPA, what are we supposed to do with these polycarbonate appliances? Taking apart the steamer and putting it in my community’s recycling program is not a responsible option, because this would just put BPA deeper into the environment. (In fact, recycled paper products have been contaminated with BPA, traced to cash register receipts coated with the chemical, which were put into recycling bins.)
“BPA will likely continue to find its way into other consumer products and the environment via recycling and disposal, which is why we need to phase it out of consumer products as soon as possible,” said Mike Schade of the advocacy group Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
For now, I have placed the steamer back in the garage. Hopefully, by the next time I trip over the box, companies will have stopped making, and retailers will no longer sell, polycarbonate kitchen tools. And maybe someone will have figured out what we should do with all the unwanted products containing BPA.
FairWarning is a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues.
Emily Dwass is a contributor to FairWarning.