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Speeding Up Safety
With the government slow to act and consumers quick to mobilize, companies have learned to take swift action on potentially dangerous products.

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008

After a government panel said there was "some concern" that the chemical bisphenol A could be harmful to infants and small children, it took less than a week for Wal-Mart and Toys R Us to announce that they would stop selling baby bottles that were made with it.

The swift response stood in stark contrast to the drawn-out reaction to concerns about another chemical, polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, that go back to the 1970s. Ikea came up with a plan to remove PVC from its products and packaging in the early 1990s. Sears Holdings, the parent company of Sears and Kmart, pledged to do so just last December.

The actions of Wal-Mart and Toys R Us were also notable for what the companies didn't do: wait for lawmakers or federal regulators to step in or for scientific consensus about bisphenol A's negative health effects. In fact, they chose to disregard the Food and Drug Administration's position that food containers made with BPA were safe.

"When clouds begin to form over something, as they have increasingly over phthalates or bisphenol A, we don't wait for a final judgment," Toys R Us chief executive Gerald L. Storch said. "Our principle at Toys R Us is that it is always okay to be more conservative than required."

The rush to banish BPA is an example of how businesses have learned to respond quickly when their customers become alarmed. Major retailers and manufacturers have been taking their own measures because of a regulatory system that has not kept up with changes in the marketplace, said lawmakers, former regulators and corporate management experts.

"American families and children should not have to rely on retailers to protect their health from toxic chemicals in products. Clearly, the system is broken," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Some manufacturers that are directly affected by the decisions by Wal-Mart and Toys R Us question whether it serves consumers when retailers take matters into their own hands. While companies operate free of the bureaucratic constraints regulators face, they do so without certain safeguards. They run a higher risk of responding to concerns that prove unfounded.

Consumer and public health advocates are more enthusiastic about businesses' heightened sensitivity to chemical concerns. They argue that as the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart can exert more influence on foreign suppliers and move faster than government overseers.

"Even if our regulatory agencies worked perfectly, it would take several years for any regulation to be finalized on bisphenol A," said Lynn Goldman, a Johns Hopkins University professor and a top official at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration. Companies are increasingly fielding consumer inquiries about what's in their shower curtains or water bottles because chemicals such as bisphenol A fall into a kind of regulatory and bureaucratic hole.

"The government is completely useless here, largely because there's no operative federal law that regulates these chemicals," said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group. "It's a free-for-all zone."

The EPA is working on a new risk assessment of BPA, among other chemicals. But it is part of a backlog of assessments of 70 chemicals, according to Boxer's office.

The FDA, which oversees the safety of food containers, says that its recommendations are based on careful scientific review and that its evaluation of BPA is ongoing. The agency, however, has been under siege from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) for its handling of BPA.

He and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), oversight and investigations subcommittee chairman, launched an investigation after learning that a contractor preparing a draft report on the risks of BPA for a government panel had also done work for the chemical industry. The FDA has formed a task force to look at its position on BPA.

In recent months, lawmakers have introduced proposals to restrict the use of BPA and phthalates, another chemical used in plastics, in children's products.

But companies don't want to wait for legislators or regulators to act, said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.

They have more immediate concerns. Their reputations are under constant threat of attack from environmental activists and dissatisfied consumers, who, because of online message boards and Web sites, can more readily broadcast their worries and organize than in years past. It took only about eight weeks, for instance, for Moms Rising and the Center for Health, Environment & Justice to amass about 20,000 signatures for a petition they plan to deliver Wednesday to the remaining companies that still make bottles with bisphenol A.

Shareholders are also demanding that executives do more about potentially toxic chemicals in their products. This year, a record 21 resolutions on toxic chemicals and product safety were introduced at companies including Dow Chemical, Avon Products and Mattel, according to the Investor Environmental Health Network, a group of investment managers based in Falls Church. Such proposals are likely to get increased support since RiskMetrics Group, a proxy advisory firm, altered its policies this year to look more favorably on resolutions that ask companies to be more forthcoming about toxic materials.

Of course, there are always financial considerations -- in the case of BPA, sales of bottles without the chemical have been increasing.

"Our customers have told us . . . they are willing to pay for safety," Storch said.

"In instances where our customers may look for a product that goes beyond standards the FDA has set, it behooves us to listen and to stay in step with what parents are telling us," said Linda Blakley, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart.

All these factors give companies incentive to go above and beyond regulations. "The point is, you want to be ahead of the game. You don't want to wait until [protesters] come to your board meeting," Argenti said. "That's just the way expectations are today. "

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