By Beth Daley
Massachusetts public health officials today warned parents of young children to avoid storing infant formula or breast milk in plastic bottles containing bisphenol A -- and urged pregnant or breastfeeding women to avoid the common chemical in other food and drink containers.
The warning comes after an exhaustive year-long review of the controversial chemical found in products ranging from baby bottles to the linings of canned food. Studies in laboratory animals suggest BPA might increase the risk of of developmental problems in some fetuses and young children. Children and adults can ingest tiny amounts of the chemical when they drink from cups or eat from containers made with BPA.
“We are concerned about this enough that we want to warn the public," said Suzanne Condon, director of the state Bureau of Environmental Health. She said the most "consistent" scientific evidence that BPA may be harmful was focused on young children. “It just seemed it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to sit back and not do anything.”
In the absence of decisive action by the federal government, about a half-dozen states or local governments have acted on their own to protect the public from BPA. Connecticut recently banned the chemical from infant formula and baby food cans and jars and resusable food and beverage containers sold in the state. Minnesota, Suffolk County in New York, and Chicago also have passed regulations to prevent the sale of BPA baby bottles and, in some cases, sippy cups. Canada banned the sale of baby bottles containing BPA last year.
The US Food and Drug Administration, which has long declared BPA safe, is now taking a deeper look at the chemical and will provide a public update on it August 17, according to an agency spokesman.
Many manufacturers have voluntarily replaced BPA in products ranging from baby bottles to hiking drinking water containers -- and some stores such as Wal-Mart and CVS have agreed to discontinue carrying some children’s items made with BPA. Still, many products with BPA in them can be found in stores, including some transparent, hard plastic drinking bottles, and cans of liquid infant formula, soup and soda. BPA, lightweight and strong, has long been used to strengthen many plastic drinking bottles and to prevent corrosion and increase the shelf-life of canned products.
The state’s warning is precise for parents of children up to age two: Avoid transparent (clear or colored) plastic containers or baby bottles with the recycling number 7 and the letters PC (which stands for polycarbonate). Use glass or stainless steel instead. If plastics are still being used, parents should avoid heating those containers because heat can increase the release of the chemical. They should also wash the containers by hand with warm water and soap, instead of placing them in dishwashers.
Pregnant or breastfeeding woman should also eat, or cook with, fresh or frozen products instead of canned foods that may contain BPA, to reduce fetal or infant exposure to the chemical, Condon said.
Environmental health advocates praised the state for the warning but said it didn't go far enough. They want state public health officials to use their authority to ban BPA in all children's products sold in Massachusetts.
"While this is an important first step, a warning will not adequately protect Massachusetts residents, particularly developing children,'' said Mia Davis, BPA coordinator at Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group. "Families want children's products sold in Massachusetts stores to be BPA-free."
Condon said the state may ban BPA products in the future, but officials first wanted to see what the FDA would do. She said a ban would take more time and effort and in the meantime, she said, the state Department of Public Health thought it important to warn the public.
Numerous animal studies in recent years suggest that low levels of BPA exposure in fetuses and young children might cause developmental problems as well as contribute to obesity later in life. Health effects on adults are not well understood, although one large human study linked BPA concentrations in people’s urine to an increased prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, and liver toxicity. Condon said one study was particularly jarring because it showed that babies don't break down the chemical well: Using a computer model, researchers predicted that newborns would have 11 times more BPA in their blood than adults because of enzymatic differences between newborns and adults.
BPA can mimic the hormone estrogen and is believed to disrupt the body's endocrine system. Recent preliminary studies also suggest BPA may interfere with the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for breast cancer.
Officials with the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, yesterday said BPA was not harmful, noting that 11 national regulatory bodies -- from the US to Japan -- have recently concluded that the chemical is safe for use in consumer products, including those for infants and children. In an e-mail, spokeswoman Kathryn Murray St. John said that "recommendations regarding regulated products should await the outcome of FDA's review."
Still, the FDA's own scientific advisory board has criticized agency officials for relying on industry-funded studies to declare the chemical safe.
Condon's office urged parents to use powdered infant formula, which isn't stored in containers with BPA, but if a small child is on a special liquid formula, they should not make any changes to the baby's diet without consulting their health care provider first. While BPA can be found in breast milk, Condon's office stressed that mothers should continue to breastfeed and that the most effective means of reducing BPA exposure to infants is to avoid BPA products while doing so.