BPA: On the way out? Sort of

I ran across a Chicago Trib story noting that the city council voted yesterday to make the Windy City America’s first community to ban sales of polycarbonate-plastic baby bottles and “sippy” cups. A lofty claim, but every town and hamlet in Minnesota is actually slated to beat Chicago by 30 days.

Indeed, five days before Chicago did, Minnesota declared it was outlawing baby beverage-ware containing bisphenol-A, the building block of polycarbonate plastic. (For once, the Midwest has beat California to the punch on toxic-substances legislation, although Californians are considering a similar phase out of BPA.)

Unbound molecules of BPA leach from polycarbonate foodware into what we eat and drink. There are plenty of data to document that, and over the years we’ve reported on a number of the studies. It’s the leaching that’s behind the new bans, because in the body BPA not only mimics estrogen but also has been linked with all sorts of adverse health effects.

Data on the material’s toxicity come largely from animals. But the effects — from cancer to reproductive and cognitive problems — are things we all hope won’t eventually show up in people.

I’m not frankly impressed with these government agencies singling out babies’ accoutrements for the BPA ban. If this chemical is bad for baby, is it actually safe for me? Or my college-age daughter, who’s of reproductive age? How about the four-year old next door?

And even if the goal is to keep BPA from leaching into beverages destined for baby, what about polycarbonate drinking glasses and big lemonade pitchers? Moms give their little ones plenty of drinks in and from these unbreakable beverage containers.

Plenty of processed foods are packaged in cans lined with a BPA-based material. And, not surprisingly, BPA has been shown to leach from the liners into the contents of the cans. Dental sealants — designed for use on kids’ teeth — are typically made from BPA. And can later be found in saliva from treated mouths.

When I was working on a story about BPA’s potential health risks, two years ago, I wanted to illustrate the ubiquity of materials made with the chemical. I had to look no further than my kitchen. Polycarbonate glasses were tucked into the back of my cabinets, the bowl of my food processor (and every other food processor, from what I can tell) is made from polycarbonate plastic, colorful hard-plastic commuter cups sold by those big-chain coffee houses are polycarbonate, as are patio pitchers, a punch bowl someone gave me, and those clear plastic serving utensils pulled out for eating at picnics.

I don’t know how big a risk any of these items pose to health. And I know why a ban on baby bottles and sippy cups won widespread support: No one wants to take risks with defenseless babies. But it also strikes me that taking the BPA out of baby beverage dispensers is really just window dressing.

If communities find BPA a serious problem, ban it. Totally. Let’s not pretend eliminating it from baby bottles and other toddler cups will eliminate exposure to very young children. Frankly, I’ve been on a personal crusade to eliminate polycarbonate from my kitchen because it isn’t dishwasher safe. The first time someone runs a polycarbonate item through the top rack of my dishwasher, it emerges crackled. Do it a few more times and it hazes over with crazing. They’re no longer attractive. They don’t even look clean.

I’ve also interviewed enough toxicologists to know that BPA leaching increases dramatically when polycarbonate crackles.

Last fall, Health Canada announced that our neighbor to the North “will immediately proceed with drafting regulations to prohibit the importation, sale and advertising of polycarbonate baby bottles that contain bisphenol A (BPA).”

One big difference for Canada: It pledged to “also take action to limit the amount of bisphenol A that is being released into the environment.” I’m not sure what that means. And I’m betting Canada hasn’t figured that out exactly either, just yet.

But either BPA is a problem or it isn’t. Let’s send a clear message one way or the other.

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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