Battle over the baby bottle: Should containers with bisphenol A be banned?

A number of states are moving to curtail the sale and use of bottles that have this chemical. But industry groups say BPA's risks are overblown.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This week the California Senate passed a bill to outlaw the sale of sippy cups and baby bottles that contain bisphenol A, or BPA, adding momentum to a campaign against the chemical that's gaining support in statehouses across the US.

In recent weeks, Minnesota outlawed baby-food containers made with the chemical that some scientific studies suggest is a health hazard for young children as well as adults. Chicago decided to nix baby bottles made with BPA from city shelves, and a ban in Connecticut passed the legislature and awaits the governor's signature.

In total, some 55 bills in 20 states aim to curtail the use or sale of baby-food jars and cans of formula that contain BPA, which is widely used to harden plastic bottles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Urged by consumer groups and a growing number of concerned parents, state lawmakers have taken on the cause with such gusto that the chemical industry and bottle and can manufacturers have been caught off guard, says Doug Farquhar of NCSL. "I don't think they anticipated this would be one of their bigger issues," he says.

And California is shaping up to be the key battleground state in this growing battle over the baby bottle.

As the legislation moves to the state Assembly, at least a dozen lobbyists representing such groups as the American Chemistry Council and baby-formula makers Enfamil and Similac are planning an aggressive fight.

"The case [against BPA] has grown more compelling, [and] when California does something, it tends to spread across the nation," says Mary Lynne Vellinga, spokeswoman for Democratic state Sen. Fran Pavley, who cosponsored the bill.

But industry groups say the claim that it's harmful to humans is overblown and unsubstantiated. The amount of BPA in consumer goods is so minuscule that it wouldn't pose any health risks, they say.

"These are old materials that have been around for 50 years or so," says Steve Hentges, executive director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemistry Council, a trade group. "There truly is a global consensus that bisphenol A is not a human health concern.... There is no scientific basis for any of these bills."

The amount found in most Americans, he says, is "1,000 times below" what European regulators have determined as safe levels for BPA. "Exposure is not only extremely low, it is not even remotely close to the level of concern."

The European Food Safety Authority recently found that a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association that connected BPA concentrations with medical problems in adults was too inconclusive to act on. Canada, however, has banned baby bottles made with BPA because of "the uncertainty raised in some studies related to the potential effects of low levels of bisphenol A."

Concerns about BPA got a fillip last month with a study by the Harvard School of Public Health that concluded BPA from clear polycarbonate water bottles leaches into the human body. After 77 Harvard students drank from polycarbonate bottles for a week, the concentration of BPA in their urine increased by 69 percent.

But that doesn't mean those are harmful levels, Mr. Hentges says. "What the authors didn't really talk about is what that means.... Their BPA exposure was below the average for the US population."

Still, lawmakers appear to be following Canada's lead in weighing on the side of caution.

"These children's feeding products are targeted because BPA leaches from these containers into food and milk – generating significant exposures to babies and toddlers who cannot metabolize the harmful chemical as well as adults," Senator Pavley recently told legislators in California.

On Wednesday, at the urging of some federal lawmakers, the Food and Drug Administration agreed to take another look at the safety of BPA, and a full review is expected to be completed by the end of summer or early fall.

In the past, the FDA has said "the consensus of regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan is that the current levels of exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and young children."

According to the Associated Press, Reps. Henry Waxman (D) of California and Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan wrote a letter to the FDA asking it to reexamine its conclusion on BPA. They suggested the FDA could have been influenced by industry lobbyists.

"Under the Bush administration, FDA concluded that BPA was safe at current exposure levels. We are writing to ask that you reconsider this conclusion in light of longstanding questions about the scientific data relied on by the FDA under the previous administration, as well as new press accounts detailing the influence of industry lobbyists on the FDA's scientific analyses," the congressmen wrote.

The American Academy of Pediatrics would also like to see further investigations.

"The AAP is deeply concerned ... that the current scientific evidence is largely insufficient to draw accurate conclusions about the safety of exposure to BPA, particularly with respect to vulnerable populations including pregnant women, infants, and children," Renée Jenkins, the previous AAP president, said last year.

Long before the debate over the baby bottle raged in state capitals, it was playing out on parenting blogs and in online discussion groups – in fact, ever since a 2007 study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences said BPA caused reproductive abnormalities in mice.

Some parents have wasted no time ridding their cupboards of traditional plastics and buying BPA-free containers, which have increasingly appeared in stores.

The BPA controversy came on the heels of revelations about lead paint in toys imported from China, so "everyone was hyper aware of these toxins lurking in our baby's products," says Greg Allen, who publishes a blog for new fathers called daddytypes.com, and who has cleared his household of BPA bottles.

"I felt literally like I was writing about it [BPA] every day," Mr. Allen says.

But the new concern about chemicals in baby bottles is also the product of a society that is hyper concerned about safety, he says. "There's more of a generalized awareness – or obsession – about safety. The fact that we've had a full generation of safety focus has to have an effect."

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