A proposal by Governor Deval Patrick's administration to ban baby bottles and infant sippy cups containing a chemical suspected of hampering childhood development drew scrutiny today from public health regulators, who expressed worries that the plastic ingredient might be replaced with something more dangerous.
"My concern is the unintended consequences," said Dr. Alan Woodward, a member of the state Public Health Council, the appointed panel that would have to approve the prohibition. "My concern is that we may find out five to 10 years down the line that compounds in the replacement are more toxic."
The chemical, Bisphenol A, has been implicated in an array of health problems, including cancer, metabolic disorders, and brain abnormalities. Adults and children can ingest small amounts of the substance, known by the shorthand BPA, when drinking from cups and bottles or consuming the contents of canned goods with lining containing the chemical.
Studies have suggested BPA poses the greatest risk to fetuses and young children during early months of fragile development. The US Food and Drug Administration acknowledged in January there is "some concern" about the chemical and embarked on extensive studies of BPA, which has been shown to cause ill effects in animal studies. While the FDA called for "reasonable steps to reduce exposure of infants to BPA," the agency stopped short of calling for federal regulatory action.
In the wake of the FDA's finding and consumer worries, Patrick in March called on state health regulators to draft a limited ban on BPA-containing products. Under the prohibition presented today, baby bottles and sippy cups made with BPA would be banished from all stores by July 1, 2011. Major retailers have already stopped selling these BPA-containing products, according to Geoff Wilkinson, senior policy adviser at the state Department of Public Health.
"The science is sufficiently compelling about the health effects for infants and young children that the department wants to take limited precautionary action," Wilkinson said in an interview. "We're bending over backward to clarify the scope of the regulation because of the concerns, especially of the medical devices industry, that it could somehow be misconstrued and have broader applications." BPA, Wilkinson said, is present in some medical device components used in hospitals and elsewhere.
The activist group Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow said the Patrick administration's proposal did not go far enough and called on the Public Health Council to include infant formula and baby food packaging in the ban.
Chemical industry representatives present at today's meeting did not have an immediate response to the proposal.
The Public Health Council -- an appointed panel of doctors, disease trackers, and consumer advocates -- will not vote on the proposal until September at the earliest. Public hearings are expected in June. But one member of the council, Albert Sherman, expressed fears that the ban might prove hasty.
"What's the big rush on this?" said Sherman, vice chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "There are a lot of nuances in this issue. If we can wait, we should wait as long as possible for federal standards."
While other members of the council did not join in his call for a delay, they did ask about the viability and reliability of BPA alternatives.
"Looking ahead two years from now, what will we know then that we don't know now?" said council member Meredith Rosenthal, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.
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