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Regulators fear ban on BPA in bottles would make matters worse

Health officials say substitutes may also be toxic

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / May 13, 2010

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A proposal by Governor Deval Patrick’s administration to ban baby bottles and toddler sippy cups containing a chemical suspected of hampering childhood development drew scrutiny yesterday 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, which 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 food from cans with lining that contains the chemical.

Studies suggest BPA poses the greatest risk to fetuses and young children during the early months of development. The US Food and Drug Administration acknowledged in January that 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 urged “reasonable steps to reduce exposure of infants to BPA,’’ the agency stopped short of calling for federal regulatory action.

Patrick in March called on state health regulators to draft a limited ban on BPA-containing products. Under the plan presented yesterday, baby bottles and sippy cups made with BPA would be banished from all stores by July 1, 2011. Major retailers have already stopped selling such 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. “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 did not go far enough and called on the Public Health Council to include infant formula and baby food packaging in the ban.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, branded the ban unwarranted.

“A better approach that would not waste limited public resources or further confuse consumers would be to allow the US regulatory agencies charged with — and undertaking — comprehensive reviews of BPA to complete their work,’’ the industry group said in a statement.

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 council member expressed fears the ban might prove hasty.

“What’s the big rush on this?’’ said Albert 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 Meredith Rosenthal, a council member and a Harvard School of Public Health researcher.

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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