After covering the controversy this week over bisphenol A, a chemical found in such things as hard plastic baby bottles and the lining of infant formula cans, I couldn't help but make the comparison with the milk tragedy occurring in China. According to Reuters's last count, 6,244 children have become ill, with four dead and 158 suffering acute kidney failure from drinking formula laced with another plastic material called melamine. Chinese parents are in a justified state of panic, rushing their babies to emergency rooms for ultrasounds of their kidneys, while supermarket managers pull milk and yogurt from shelves after the chemical was found in fresh milk as well as the powdered kind added to formulas.
While there are certainly similarities between the BPA and melamine scares, like the particular vulnerability of infants to these chemicals, the differences between the two are far more vast. The situation in China purportedly occurred, according to the Associated Press, because milk suppliers were trying to cut costs and make more money by adding melamine to watered-down milk. The chemical is high in nitrogen, making products containing it appear higher in protein. According to one of the foreign owners of Chinese formula maker Sanlu, the Chinese government first got wind of the melamine problem in Sanlu and other formulas last month, right before the Beijing Olympics, but kept it quiet until well after the last of the tourists departed.
In this country, food packagers began adding the coating to cans decades ago to protect foods from corroding metal, allowing you to keep canned corn, tomatoes, and tuna on your shelf for years. The health consequences of BPA exposure still haven't been firmly established, but the government has been funding studies to get more answers. The Food and Drug Administration held a hearing this week on evidence for limiting the use of BPA. And Congress is demanding to know which studies the FDA used to determine last month that BPA in food packaging is unequivocably safe. While we still have occasional food scares, it's much harder here to keep an immediate danger hidden away in a closet until the guests leave.