Public choice and BPA

This week the Oregon Senate is considering a bill to ban Bisphenol-A, or BPA, from use in products intended for children under the age of four. BPA is a common chemical in plastic containers. There is some fear that it causes harm by leaking into food and drink products. I am skeptical, as I am of most such scares, but I haven’t done enough research on the topic to have a firm opinion either way.

Writing at Blue Oregon, Kari Chisholm is sure that we should pass the ban. In fact he’d like to ban it in all food containers, not just the ones intended for children. Some of his reasoning is based on scientific research but the rest is biased towards what’s good for legislators. Here’s one of his arguments:

Smart legislators will vote for SB 1032. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s entirely possible that it could become a political issue in upcoming campaigns. When our son was born, I had never heard of BPA. But hanging around with a bunch of new parents, I quickly learned about it – and this is a major worry with young families. (Legislators who don’t have young children of their own would be smart to check in with some new parents — they may be surprised how deep the concern runs about BPA. Entire businesses have been built to help parents avoid this chemical.)

Given a choice between protecting the health and well-being of Oregon children – and protecting a bunch of out-of-state (and overseas) chemical and plastics manufacturers – I think the choice is clear. You can imagine what the attack ads will look like for those who vote against the bill.

This also isn’t about jobs. No one in Oregon produces BPA or the products affected by SB 1032.

This might all be true, but there’s nothing praiseworthy in the provincial idea that we should go ahead with the ban because the only people who would be hurt by it are non-Oregonian Americans or foreigners who are likely economically worse off than we are. It’s expedient for legislators to think that way but it’s not a principle we should encourage. (If Oregon was home to a BPA plant, would Chisholm want legislators to ignore science to protect their political prospects?)

Then he updates with this:

Over at the OLCV blog, Jon Isaacs notes that the Bisphenol-A baby-bottle ban is an opportunity for a big bipartisan accomplishment, at a time when there’s been a lot of partisan bickering and stonewalling.

I don’t even know what the point of this is supposed to be. Bipartisanship is only good if the laws that are being passed are good. It’s not good for it’s own sake. If all it does is give politicians something to point to when they’re running for re-election and cover from lobbying groups then I don’t see the value. The same blog post he links to notes that 90% of the bottles for sale in Oregon are already BPA-free anyway, suggesting that concerned parents and retailers are handling the alleged problem reasonably well on their own.

There might be good reasons to ban BPA in bottles, but after reading this Blue Oregon post I’m less convinced than ever that the decision will be based on sound science rather than on the self-interest of legislators.

Update 2/16/10: The bill failed.