FREEPORT — The House District 106 state representative is the latest legislator to join the effort to ban toxic chemicals in food packaging.
Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who also represents Pownal, is sponsoring a bill directing the Department of Environmental Protection to study the availability of food packaging that does not contain the pervasive and toxic chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA.
“Toxins exists in our food packaging,” Gideon said Monday. “My belief is that on a federal level, the (Food and Drug Administration) has not shown a willingness to do something other countries have done, which is to ban BPA from food packaging altogether, so local lawmakers need to be the ones to put a stop to it.”
BPA is a chemical found in most plastic containers and epoxy resins, which are used to coat the inside of soft-drink cans and food containers, including baby formula and food jar lids. It has been shown to act as an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it mimics the body’s own hormones and has been linked to reproductive problems, cancer, obesity, early puberty and neurological problems.
The chemical can seep into foods when they are heated either in the manufacturing processes, including high-temperature sterilization, or when people reheat the foods at home in the containers.
The chemical has been in use for about four decades and is designed to be a protective coating to help preserve the food and prevent corrosion and contamination.
BPA has been found to be an effective chemical in preventing heavy metal bacteria from leaching into foods, which can cause serious immediate health problems such as botulism, a deadly, paralytic illness.
Safe alternatives to BPA are available, but along with its strong protective properties, BPA is also inexpensive to make. This creates a significant hurdle for competing products, particularly in Maine, where it would help to have other New England states ban the chemical because of the area’s small market, Gideon said.
In January, the state Board of Environmental Protection voted unanimously to approve a ban on BPA in baby food packaging that must now go before the Legislature for final approval.
Gideon said the state has already taken some steps to get toxic chemicals out of products, including the passage of the Kid-Safe Products Act, which addressed some BPA concerns. But it was only aimed at products for children 4 and older.
Other countries, including Canada, China and all of the European Union, have banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and other child products.
Nine other states have taken steps to ban the chemical from food packaging, including Washington state, which began banning the substance from water bottles and children’s dishware. Minnesota banned BPA in children’s drinking products in 2009.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled BPA a “chemical of concern,” but it is still widely used in most states.
Gideon has a full jacket of bipartisan support for her bill. It joins other bills, including one sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, which aims to identify and remove 49 of the most toxic chemicals in food packaging and household products.
Gideon said she hopes that by commissioning this study, more lawmakers will be able to support a ban on BPA.
“I think this is one step, or the first step, of achieving a goal of toxic-free packaging,” she said.
A December 2012 study on BPA food packaging alternatives was commissioned for DEP, but did not provide recommendations on the feasibility of Maine banning the chemical.
Proponents of a ban on BPA have met significant resistance from Gov. Paul LePage, who has said previously that the more scientific studies need to be conducted to support a ban.
LePage angered ban proponents last year, when he quipped that babies’ exposure to BPA, at worst, could cause women to grow “little beards.”
Aside from food packaging, BPA is also found in other everyday products, such as receipt paper.
A BPA ban in food packaging remains Gideon’s first priority.
“I think the ultimate goal should be removing chemicals that could cause harm to people no matter where they are,” she said. “Right now, this is the most pervasive.”