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First U.S. Bans of BPA Fall Short of Consumer Protection

By May 14, 2009

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Growing scientific and public concern about the potential health effects of exposure to bisphenol A (BPA)—an industrial chemical that is widely used in common plastic products and associated with higher incidences of heart disease, diabetes and liver abnormalities in adults as well as brain and hormone development problems in children—has led to the first attempts to find political solutions to the problem.

Chicago yesterday became the first U.S. city to ban BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, and other food and drink containers intended for children under 3 years old. Minnesota last week became the first state to pass a similar ban on BPA in household products for children. Both bans will take effect in 2010.

The chemical industry fought hard against both BPA bans. In Chicago, industry lobbyists succeeded in persuading lawmakers to drop their proposal for an aggressive ban on nearly any children’s product containing BPA in favor of a more modest ban on empty food and drink containers made with the chemical.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains BPA is safe at current levels and poses no serious health risks to humans, but the FDA ruling has become controversial because the agency ignored input from its own scientists and allowed chemical companies to write significant portions of the official finding. Many scientists, as well as the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services, have disputed the FDA ruling on the safety of BPA.

While several other states, cities and counties are considering bans on the use of BPA in products for children, and Congress is reviewing legislation that would restrict the use of BPA, some media reports have suggested that such laws and ordinances may be unnecessary or merely symbolic because of voluntary actions by industry leaders. Already, several large retailers, such as Wal-Mart and CVS, have stopped selling products containing BPA, and leading manufacturers of baby bottles and other household goods have started to market BPA-free products.

None of this is likely to provide much comfort to concerned consumers, especially the parents of young children, who are looking for ways to protect themselves and their families from the potential health effects of BPA. Banning the use of BPA in a few products for children offers only limited protection from the chemical, which is used as an additive in everything from shatterproof plastic products to dental fillings, household electronics, and the lining of food and beverage containers. Use of the chemical is so pervasive, in fact, that studies found BPA in the bodies of 93 percent of Americans who were tested. The highest concentrations were detected in infants and young children.

If scientists continue to raise serious questions about the health hazards of BPA, then a more serious and comprehensive solution will be required to address the problem. Otherwise, consumers are likely to view bans like those in Minnesota and Chicago as little more than political gestures.

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