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Growing Concern Over BPA Fuels Nationwide Controversy

By Jeff Webb

For more than a decade, scientists, chemical companies, and the federal government have studied and debated whether bisphenol A (BPA) poses a health risk to infants. Now, as scientific evidence mounts to support that concern, consumers and lawmakers are broadening the discussion to include all age groups.

BPA was originally developed as an estrogen-replacement drug. Although it is present in products such as eyeglasses and compact discs, its common use in plastic containers, such as reusable water bottles and the linings of metal cans that contain tuna, tomatoes, soda, or soup has been frequently questioned as unhealthy. In particular, critics have railed about BPA’s presence in babies’ bottles, sippy cups, and teething rings.

Some chemical companies and retailers have voluntarily discontinued the manufacture and sale of the clear, hard plastic compound in children’s products. The FDA has acknowledged that BPA can seep into foods and beverages, but it has not yet banned the substance from food containers.

According to a May 11 e-mail interview with a representative from the FDA’s press office, the administration’s position is that “current levels of exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and babies. The FDA agrees that, due to the uncertainties raised in some studies relating to the potential effects of low-dose exposure to bisphenol A, additional research would be valuable. The FDA is already moving forward with planned research to address the potential low-dose effects of bisphenol A, and we will carefully evaluate the findings of these studies.”

The FDA’s position amounts to culpable indifference, according to Frederick S. vom Saal, PhD, a scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia and one of the world’s leading experts on BPA. “The FDA isn’t doing its job,” he says. Vom Saal, whose research is funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), points to data from the 2007 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals indicating that 93% of the people tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had BPA in their urine and that the highest concentrations of the drug were found in children.

In a 2008 report, the NIH’s National Toxicology Program cited concern about BPA’s “effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children.” Other studies have connected BPA to heart disease, prostate cancer, and diabetes. The chemical compound’s link to obesity should be of particular concern to dietitians, vom Saal says. “It leads to high levels of insulin and blood glucose. It has been extensively documented in animal studies and now in a major medical study [the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey]. … As BPA levels go up, the risk of insulin-resistant diabetes is significantly related to levels of BPA in the urine,” he says.

While the FDA awaits more scientific evidence, some members of Congress believe they have all they need. In March, U.S. Rep Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would ban BPA in all food and beverage containers. Sens Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are backing the bill. At the same time, seven states—California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota—are not waiting for Congress to act and are eyeing their own legal restrictions on BPA.

Despite studies that are critical of BPA’s use in food containers and the proposed legislative sanctions, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association asserts that by taking a balanced approach to eating, consumers who have concerns about BPA can lessen their exposure to the chemical.

“The advice that dietitians give to people on eating an overall healthy diet also works to help reduce exposure to BPA,” says Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, who is based in the Phoenix area. “If you are trying to eat a variety of food and include as much fresh, whole foods as possible, you also will be cutting out some of the possible BPA exposure through plastic containers or canned food products.”

But for now, “choosing to take steps to purchase BPA-free products … is a personal decision, much like whether or not to use organic foods,” she adds. “We may see changes in how BPA is regulated, but at the moment it is considered safe.”

Meanwhile, one dietitian is taking a practical approach to lessening infants’ exposure to BPA. Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, LD/N, works with children ranging from birth to 18 years old at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. “This is another good reason for moms to breast-feed their infants for the first year of life,” she says. “If a mom is very concerned about the quality of baby bottles, by breast-feeding she is using, by far, [fewer] bottles.”

— Jeff Webb is a freelance writer and editor based in Spring Hill, Fla. 


1. National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, published in 2007