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Officials mull ban on some bottles

Those with BPA may be harmful

Thomas Boles Welsh's mother, Erin, demonstrated yesterday at the State House with other concerned parents calling for a ban on bottles made with the chemical BPA. Thomas Boles Welsh's mother, Erin, demonstrated yesterday at the State House with other concerned parents calling for a ban on bottles made with the chemical BPA. (BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / March 20, 2009

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Massachusetts public health officials are weighing whether to warn pregnant women and young children to avoid food, drinks, and other items containing bisphenol A, in the latest in a series of intensifying efforts around the country to eliminate the controversial chemical from products.

Health officials say they are examining the science behind the odorless, tasteless chemical known as BPA to determine whether to issue a public health advisory or an outright ban on the chemical, which is used in hundreds of everyday products, including sippy cups, pacifiers, and some baby bottles.

Growing evidence indicates that low levels of BPA might cause developmental problems in fetuses and young children, as well as other ill effects. BPA is used to make reuseable, hard plastic bottles more durable, and it is in the resins that line canned goods such as soup and infant formula to prevent corrosion. Children can ingest tiny amounts of the chemical when they drink from cups or baby bottles or if they are given canned formula.

"We are evaluating the science . . . to come up with the best information that makes public health and consumer sense," said Suzanne Condon, director of the state Bureau of Environmental Health. She said the department, if it issues a warning, wants to provide a list of safer alternatives, but a lack of information on substitutes and recent cuts to the department's budget have delayed efforts. She said she hopes to decide within a few months on an advisory. A ban would take longer.

That timeline isn't quick enough for local environmental advocates and mothers who held a protest at the State House yesterday. About 30 protesters delivered 8,490 messages from consumers, many in bottles with BPA, to Governor Deval Patrick's office urging him and the state Department of Public Health to take quick action to ban use of the chemical in children's products, or at least issue a health advisory.

The US Food and Drug Administration has said that products containing BPA are safe and that exposure levels, including those for infants and children, are below those that would affect health. But the FDA's scientific advisory board criticized agency officials for relying on industry-funded studies to declare the chemical safe. Michael L. Herndon, an FDA spokesman, said in e-mail to the Globe this week that the agency is reviewing the chemical in greater depth.

Public concern about BPA has been growing, especially since Canada announced plans last year to ban it in baby bottles as early as this year and the US National Toxicology Program, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, released a draft report last April saying there was "some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures."

Major retailers such as Wal-Mart promised to pull BPA baby bottles from their shelves while manufacturers of hiking water bottles made with the chemical, such as Nalgene, said they would make BPA-free products.

In the last month, efforts have been stepped up further. First, six major baby bottle companies, including Gerber and Playtex, agreed to stop using the chemical in US bottles after the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, and New Jersey asked them to do so. Last week, Sunoco announced to investors it would not sell BPA to customers unless they promised not to use it in food or water containers for children 3 or younger, according to news reports. This week, US Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden and other members of the House and Senate introduced legislation for a ban on BPA in food and beverage containers.

"It's getting to the point the weight of the evidence is so fantastic, the science isn't under dispute," said Laura N. Vandenberg, a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts Center for Regenerative & Developmental Biology, who has studied BPA. Vandenberg and several colleagues at Tufts sent a letter last week to the state Department of Public Health urging it to act quickly to ban BPA in children's products. Scientists are most concerned about early development because it is critical for long-term health.

Dozens of animal studies have linked exposure to small amounts of BPA to health problems, including reproductive harm and cancers, later in life. However, the results have not been confirmed in humans.

A recent large human study linked BPA concentrations in people's urine to an increased prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, and liver toxicity, although scientists say the link to those diseases has to be studied more to establish a definite connection. A federal study has shown that about 93 percent of the US population has BPA in their body.

The American Chemistry Council, in a press statement posted on its website recently, pointed to the FDA's finding that BPA is safe and said that "similar conclusions recently have been reached by authorities in Europe and Japan."

Still, mothers at the State House said studies warrant restrictions.

"As a parent, it is a high priority for me to see BPA banned," said Cheryl Durr Patry, a mother from Medfield who attended the protest, organized by the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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