He Got An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse

Tracey Barnett ©December 2009

Fighting BPA One Customer at a Time

When you read about the chemical BPA and bottle importer Mark Ward in today’s Review Section [scroll down for Mark Ward piece below], heads up. If you think this story is about sports bottles and murky science you’ll never decipher, you’ve got it dead wrong.

This story is about sending a message every time you open your wallet. It’s about individual actions wielding a big, honking sledgehammer.

Just ask those crazy Canadians. Some scientists started finding unsettling results when they exposed animals to even the tiniest amounts of BPA, the chemical used to make clear, hard plastics.

Though it is still being disputed, there have been enough studies to make some scientists draw a link to diabetes, obesity, attention deficit, breast and prostate cancers, early puberty and skewed reproductive health.

Paradoxically, adults seem to ingest it just fine in low doses. It’s when babies are exposed to even tiny amounts in the womb, or as growing children, that exposure may impact the children they bear, as well as themselves. This kicker may not start to show up adversely until your own child has children.

More worrying is when we ingest it from residue from food containers that contain BPA, like plastic baby bottles or the interior lining of tin cans. It’s also found in dental sealants, eyeglass lens, toys and computers.

When scientists started publishing their initial studies, Canadian consumers reacted. They didn’t want to wait another generation to find out if the reigning view deeming BPA safe will hold true.

Their press was on it. Consumers started to avoid buying BPA products. Canada became the first country in the world to ban BPA in baby bottles.

The US noticed next. They, like the European Union, had ruled BPA was safe, until they stubbed their toe on one small problem.

Someone noticed that 100% of industry funded studies found no harm from BPA, but curiously, about 90% of independent studies did find adverse health effects. Maybe we’d better revisit this one, the Americans concluded. That’s where they are now. A decision is due soon.

But don’t hold your breath for quick change. The economic motivator to resist this billion dollar plastic retrenchment from multiple industries worldwide is staggering. Regulators will be up against the food canning industry, computer producers, the dental industry, bottle manufacturers, and more. The players are estimable, Dow, General Electric, and Shell, just for starters.

What does this shift look like for us at home? Unfortunately, it hits at the livelihood of local businesspeople here too, not just Mark Ward. On our own shores, I had a distributor threatening me with lawyers if I merely published that his brand contained BPA—and he didn’t know himself what was in his newly arrived container. He chose to go by what his industry-provided information told him was safe.

Many retailers are in transition, trying to sell their old BPA stock before bringing in new BPA-free stuff. Others disagree, concluding that Kiwis are voting with their wallets too.

But I don’t buy it. An educated consumer will trump price any day. Just ask the retailers in Queenstown who have been buying up BPA-free bottles for months now. Why? Their customers are international tourists who know all about BPA from their overseas markets.

Yet when I walked into Auckland stores and asked customers and new mothers if they had heard about BPA, I might as well have been babbling in Aramaic.

Plunkett isn’t adding much to the mix. They will tell new mothers about BPA if they know to ask, otherwise they refer them to NZ Food Safety Authority’s [NZFSA] website that says BPA does not cause cancer.

NZSFA will move to change their perspective when the long, slow, giant behemoth of the US’ regulatory body, the FDA, or the EU, does. That might be years if industry agitation has anything to say about it.

Meanwhile, where does that leave someone like importer Mark Ward who did his damnedest to ask questions, yet found no new answers from our local authorities? And the average Kiwi?

Vote with your wallet—now. Until the slow train of regulatory bodies worldwide catch up to the consumer backlash, buy BPA-free, if you’re unsure.

Educate yourself before you put dental sealants on your child’s six-year-old molars. You might have to educate your dentist too. Don’t put plastics in the microwave or heat food in tin cans. Tell other new mothers about BPA-free baby bottles if Plunkett won’t officially take the initiative until NZFSA does.

Kiwi suppliers should proactively ask if their next shipment contains BPA so other countries don’t attempt to dump their unwanted product on our shores. We don’t want to be at the wrong end of this tail.

Let’s be clear. Nothing is proven yet. But it feels damned good to take initiative for our own health—one person, one educated dollar at a time.

Caught in the Middle

He got an offer he couldn’t refuse. In just two shipments, he nearly cleaned out his supplier’s entire North American stock of controversial BPA drink bottles. What sane businessman would turn down 85 per cent off?

About 18 months ago, Extreme Gear owner, Mark Ward, the largest importer of recreational sports water bottles in New Zealand, bought the remainder of Camelbak brand drink bottles that still contained BPA.

His American supplier, Camelbak, decided to switch over to a new plastic called Triton. Their new plastic was easier to mould and could handle new designs and colours.

What they didn’t make clear is that North American consumers have become so alert to the potential health risks of BPA, the environmentally conscious supplier decided to switch to a new BPA-free plastic. Their old BPA stock still needed a new home.

Ward purchased one hundred thirty thousand BPA bottles from the US retailer, later scooping up most of Canada’s unwanted BPA stock too, the same bottles he’d bought in the past.

The issue of BPA wasn’t yet in Ward’s radar. He had read some about health risks but nothing was conclusive. When he realized what he had, Ward attempted to educate himself. Should he pull them? Send them back? He considers himself an environmentalist and felt strongly that re-usable lifestyle bottles were better than throwaway petroleum ones. Ward hoped to bring the retail price down for consumers.

He went to New Zealand Food Safety [NZFSA] and asked for guidance. They told him that BPA is not banned in New Zealand and that as a commercial supplier they are not in a position to tell him what to do.

“NZSFA were adamant that there was no link to cancer. They were adamant there was no danger. We used that as a yardstick.” Ward said.

Finding conflicting reports from scientists and industry studies, he decided to go ahead and sell them here.

Today, having seen the tide turn strongly against BPA in other markets, he is clearly frustrated. “I don’t think we’ve had clear leadership from our so-called experts in this country.”

“I’m disillusioned with the food safety website and look at their mission statement and who they are. They are supposed to protect consumers.”

As the distributor for the new BPA-free bottles also, what market in New Zealand started buying those bottles first and fastest? Queenstown, where International tourists have been exposed to this issue. “They know what they want, they are informed, educated.” said Ward.

“The hard thing for me,” Ward said, “I found it really difficult to find a credible source that tells it like it is. Somebody who is willing to stand up and say it is dangerous now.” He’s still waiting for that definitive answer.

Would he do it again, knowing what he knows now? Ward’s response, “Shit, no.”

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