BPA and babies: Feds acknowledge concerns

Federal health and research officials outlined new guidance today for parents on the use of hard, clear plastics made from bisphenol-A, a hormonelike chemical. Their bottom line: Minimize BPA-based products that could make contact with foods or drinks that infants or toddlers might consume — especially hot foods and drinks.

But the Food and Drug Administration stopped short of recommending that parents pitch baby bottles and sippy cups made from BPA. Nor did it call for parents to avoid processed infant formulas and baby foods — some of which it acknowledges are contaminated with traces of BPA. In the case of these foods, FDA argues, “the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk from BPA exposure.”

But the agency did note that it now “shares the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.”

BPA molecules weakly mimic the action of estrogen, the primary female sex hormone. Moreover, federal surveys have shown that traces of BPA taint us all. Data on this have been emerging for decades. But studies have had a hard time nailing down at what concentrations chronic exposure to BPA might pose harm. And controversies have brewed over the quality and design of studies that have been conducted on BPA safety.

Meanwhile, countless food containers made from or lined with a BPA-based material have continued to roll down assembly lines.

As recently as 2008, FDA asserted that food-related materials containing BPA could be used safely. Its announcement today seems to qualify that message — significantly.

For instance, it now recommends that parents “discard scratched baby bottles and infant feeding cups.” Of course, various public-interest groups and researchers have advocated that for more than a decade, since that etching points to plastics that will likely be leaching substantial BPA.

Many of the dental sealants applied to children’s teeth also have historically contained large amounts of BPA which can leach into saliva. FDA made no mention of dental sealants in its new parents’ guide to BPA. 

The agency did boast of boosting its research efforts to better understand any potential BPA risks. Studies it’s conducting will be:

— comparing the chemical’s effects in rodents and nonhuman primates to predict internal exposure of BPA in both free- and chemically bound forms. The goal: to identify effects in animals that, for biological reasons, may never occur in babies. Results from this study are expected to be available within a few months.
— conducting rodent studies to characterize potential adverse effects — and, where observed, the dose-response relationship in the prostate and mammary glands for ingested BPA. These studies will also explore other potential risks suggested by earlier studies — such as the plasticizer’s link to obesity and heart disease. 
— characterizing the dose at which BPA can trigger the behavioral, neuroanatomical, neurochemical and hormonal changes seen in earlier, provocative studies. FDA says this new research is “intended to evaluate possible effects of exposure to BPA during development that have been reported in some published studies on sexually dimorphic behavioral endpoints such as anxiety, as well as on standard developmental neurotoxicity tests.” The agency expects findings within two years.

Late last year, the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences announced it would also be spending some $30 million in Recovery Act funds for 10 BPA studies. These two-year investigations will explore a number of health effects, including behavior; obesity; diabetes; reproductive disorders; development of prostate, breast and uterine cancer; asthma; cardiovascular diseases; and transgenerational or epigenetic effects. All have shown up in animals or test-tube analyses — or occasionally in humans.

Today’s announcements “are an important step in the right direction,” says Ana Soto of Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston. “As a physician, endocrinologist and someone who has signed the Endocrine Society position paper on [concerns over human exposures to] endocrine disruptors, I’m very concerned about BPA exposures.” Indeed, she said that she thinks the risk posed by BPA in the diet “is a lot more serious” than FDA made it out to be today.

And that, she said, is why she supports the statement issued by the Endocrine Society, last summer, which she notes “is pushing for the application of a precautionary principle,” which advocates erring on the side of caution. After all, Soto argues, “I don’t think that we can wait to cross all of the t’s and dot all the i’s.”

“Today’s announcement by FDA is the beginning of the end of exposing our children to this toxic, hormone-altering chemical during the earliest stages of life,” said Jane Houlihan, a vice president for research with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. “It represents a victory for parents and children, and validation of the hundreds of independent studies linking BPA to numerous and serious health problems.”

But the agency should have gone farther. It should have explicitly recommended that parents eschew BPA-based materials that could make contact with food or drinks. It didn’t have to recommend that parents replace them all this weekend. But maybe over the next few months.

After all, manufacturers have already seen the proverbial graffiti on the wall. For instance, according to the Department of Health and Human Services today, the six major U.S. manufacturers of baby bottles and infant feeding cups have not used BPA in these baby products for a year. (At least, it says, these companies no longer include BPA in those products destined “for the U.S. market.”) Together, the companies supply more than 90% of the U.S. market through brands that include Avent, Doctor Brown’s Natural Flow, Evenflow, First Essentials, Gerber, Munchkin, Nuk and Playtex.

But as we pointed out earlier this week, BPA probably isn’t a threat to just babies. Which is why keeping BPA-based polycarbonates as the plastic of choice in kitchen wares may need rethinking. And, of course, plastic isn’t the only source of BPA. Consider those mountains of tainted cash-register receipts.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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