Last week the LA Times ran the following story about a report by the National Toxicology Program (part of the National Institutes of Health), which says there is concern about the affects of Bisphenol A (BPA) – a common synthetic chemical used in polycarbonate plastic – on human health (and therefore other forms of life).
A controversial, estrogen-like chemical in plastic could be harming the development of children's brains and reproductive organs, a federal health agency concluded in a report released Tuesday.
The full story is here:
From a sustainability perspective this comes as no surprise. Sustainability Principle 2 states that in a sustainable society nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society (such as synthetic chemicals). With all the plastics, including the additives, plasticizers, by-products, etc., that are persistent and foreign to natural systems, there is no doubt that our production, use, and disposal of them results in their systematic increase in nature. Living systems and organisms (including us) haven’t co-evolved with these compounds, and they are toxic. Shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
This brings us to a core concept in creating a sustainable society – where falls the burden of proof. Right now it falls on the citizens, and our representative groups to respond to potential threats, and to prove that they are indeed threats, and battle through layers of bureaucracy, inertia, and special interests to secure the elimination (or partial elimination) of those threats. The burden of proof should, of course, fall on any of us that produce and sell a product, to ensure that to the best of our knowledge and that of the scientific community it is safe, and if greater knowledge reveals that it is not safe, we should no longer be able to produce and sell it.
From an organizational perspective, companies that rely on BPA might be surprised, and will now have to react. Nalgene is trying to tactfully back away, saying they’ll stop using BPA in their water bottles because they think their customers will want that, even though they maintain it’s safe – so as to dampen the impact with the funnel walls, which could come in the form of litigation or loss of customers. Wal-mart has said it will adjust and stop selling baby bottles with BPA. It’s good their being responsive to the information, but the reactive approach is more expensive.
The Trunk & Branches:
By sticking to the “trunk and branches” of sustainability – the 4 sustainability principles – organizations can strategically move out of this reactive mode (or at least have the best chance possible of doing so). Instead of only trying to keep up with every study and judge which is serious, and what we can get away with, we can all (in our various roles in our various organizations) identify and champion creative ways to systematically eliminate our violations of sustainability principles.