Concerns about toxins in toys and baby products have some state lawmakers up in arms about a common ingredient in plastics. Will Minnesota be the first state to ban bisphenol A?
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Several large groups of prominent scientists have publicly expressed serious concern about BPA. In 2006, 38 experts met at a workshop sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. After analyzing more than 700 published studies, the group concluded, among other things, that current levels of BPA in people are higher than “safe dose” levels that have been established by the Environmental Protection Agency. This September, the National Toxicology Program expressed “some concern” for how current levels of exposure to BPA are affecting the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses and babies.
Not everyone trusts these conclusions, however, partly because scientists have had trouble replicating the results of many of the studies that find fault with BPA, according to Steven Hentges, a chemist from the American Chemistry Council, a plastics-industry group in Arlington, Virginia. “Repeatability is the hallmark of science,” Hentges says. “If you can’t repeat a study, you can’t rely on it.” What’s more, while hundreds of animal studies have been conducted and while researchers have noted connections between BPA exposure and implicated health problems in people, scientists have yet to find a way to directly test the effects of BPA on human reproduction: You can’t expose pregnant women to potentially harmful chemicals and then just see what happens.
In July, after an extensive review of the research, the European Food Safety Authority (Europe’s equivalent of the United States Food and Drug Administration), confirmed its previously stated view that people, including young children, metabolize and excrete BPA from their bodies more quickly than rodents do, making the chemical safe at current levels in polycarbonate products, even for babies. In August, the FDA released a draft report that came to similar conclusions. “It has become even more clear from a scientific and regulatory perspective,” Hentges says, “that there is no basis for banning BPA from [baby] products.”
Such statements leave many scientists, environmentalists, and consumer-safety advocates fuming. Dahl says the industry confuses the public by sponsoring studies that aren’t peer-reviewed and encouraging politicians to give equal weight to such research. “There is a whole analogy here with tobacco,” Wallinga adds. “The term is ‘manufactured uncertainty.’ The plastics industry is going about funding studies to try to throw doubt on conclusions from the scientific community.” He points to an analysis by researchers at the University of Missouri, who looked at 218 studies on BPA—204 funded by the government, 14 funded by industry. Of the government-funded studies, 93 percent demonstrated harm, while 100 percent of the studies funded by the plastics industry found no harm at all.
IN APRIL, Canada became the first and so far only country to ban BPA from baby bottles. At least a dozen states are in various stages of considering bills that would ban the chemical from kids’ products, including California, Maryland, New York, and Illinois. A federal bill was introduced last spring but went nowhere.
The Minnesota ban on BPA ultimately failed. But consumer advocates say the bill will be reintroduced at the legislature when the new session starts in January. State senator Rummel thinks it’s time for state governments to step in and protect citizens. “As far as I’m concerned, the U.S. government’s regulatory system is broken,” she said shortly after she introduced the bill last spring. “We now have toxic chemicals in baby bottles and children’s toys. That’s why I’m carrying this bill.”
A government ban on BPA may never come, but a variety of manufacturers (including Nalgene and Playtex Infant Care) are responding to pressure from consumers and reconfiguring their products to be BPA-free. Items made without the chemical are now advertising that fact in large letters on product packaging. And stores are rapidly responding to consumer pressure. Fifty percent of baby bottles sold at Target are currently BPA-free, says Target spokeswoman Leah Guimond, and the company plans to increase that proportion during the next year. Wal-Mart plans to stop selling baby bottles with BPA in its American stores early next year. Toys ’R’ Us is doing the same thing.
WHILE EXPERTS continue to debate the details, I am choosing to play it safe, along with a growing number of parents, women of childbearing age, and parents of girls who may some day bear children. Soon after the conference last fall, I traded my Nalgenes for stainless steel water bottles. I trashed the used baby bottles we had been given because I didn’t know if they contained BPA or not. And as my tummy grew, I stopped cooking with canned foods other than the Eden Organic brand (one of the few that offers some products in BPA-free cans).
These days, I am doing my best to keep BPA out of the body of my 6-month-old son. It isn’t easy: He gnaws on everything, so I buy wooden and cloth toys, and I research plastic spoons and teething rings to make sure I know what’s in them. He’s about to start on solid foods, which means checking out a whole new list of things that might make their way into his mouth.
During a recent trip to the Babies ’R’ Us to buy spoons and dishes for the big transition, I forgot to bring my “safe list.” I couldn’t remember which brands were made with BPA, and the choices made my head swim. Eventually, I asked a saleswoman for help. She told me to wait and within minutes, she returned with a printed list of bottles, dishes, and teething toys made without BPA. Obviously, store employees had fielded the question before.
Still, not everyone has the time, energy, or resources to weigh the many options, and that’s something that Rummel thinks needs to change. She expects to be pushing her colleagues to ban BPA again next session. “We go into a store and think what we buy for our kids is safe,” Rummel says. “This is the United States, for God’s sake. It should be safe.”
Emily Sohn lives in Minneapolis.