Massachusetts has banned the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in all baby bottles and sippy cups sold in the state. BPA is a chemical used in the liners of cans and in plastic containers to prevent spoilage and/or make them clear and shatterproof, making it particularly attractive in the production of baby bottles.
BPA is one of the most common chemicals that people are exposed to, but concerns about how it could affect developing bodies have lead the Public Health Council to approve new regulations barring the production or sale of reusable food and beverage containers for toddlers and infants that contain the chemical. Studies have warned about the potential health effects of BPA- especially for pregnant women, nursing babies and children who eat formula- but data linking the chemical to proven health risks are somewhat murky.
In the following editorial, Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH of Children’s Hospital Boston and faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, discusses BPA’s origins, why it’s so controversial and what is being done in Congress to protect children from it’s potential risks.
Over the past decade many parents have asked me about bisphenol A (BPA), a suspect chemical that leeches from polycarbonate plastics and is widely used to make all sorts of products, including baby bottles and sippy cups.
Although asked in many ways, their questions largely boil down to: will my child be harmed if exposed to this chemical?
Like so many other chemicals our children may be exposed to, we simply don’t know enough about BPA to say with absolute confidence if it endangers a child’s health when they’re exposed to unusual levels of it. (Or, for that matter, if exposures in utero may also prove harmful.) But despite the grey area that exists for many of these questions, research on BPA has given ample reason for concern, especially for children.
BPA was synthesized in 1891 to mimic estrogen, a hormone that governs the development and health of many organs, as well as the menstrual cycle. Back then BPA appeared far less effective than other available synthetic estrogens and as a result scientists lost interest in its hormonal potential. But more than 50 years later, BPA experienced a resurgence in relevance when a chemist in Pittsfield, Massachusetts discovered that BPA mixed with phosgene, a chemical used in World War I as a weapon, yielded clear and hard polycarbonate plastic that could be used in countless products.
Since then polycarbonate plastics have become so popular that avoiding them entirely has become virtually impossible. That’s a problem because when polycarbonate plastics come into contact with liquids, and especially when they are heated or exposed to certain chemicals, they can decompose and possibly release BPA into people’s bodies. Today, more than 90% of Americans have BPA detectable in their blood.
Hundreds of scientific studies have tried to sort out if these increased BPA levels pose a risk to people. Some human studies, and many more in animals, show that common exposure to BPA may promote a host of ills, from decreased fertility, weight gain, behavioral and learning problems to cancers. While legitimate debate surrounds just how much, how often, and when BPA exposure may cause these problems, we know enough to know that presuming BPA harmless is wrongheaded.
This makes the recent ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups in Massachusetts a no brainer: when there exists a reasonable belief that increased BPA exposure could pose health risks, why take the risks associated with BPA at all?
At the time of polycarbonate plastic’s discovery over half a century ago, no one wondered about whether a baby bottle might be made of toxic materials. At that time most bottles were made of glass. Glass shatters, of course, which is what made plastics so attractive to manufacturers and parents. But I’ll take shattered glass (or other plastics that to the best of our knowledge are safer) over BPA associated risks for obesity, infertility, or cancer any day, even if those risk have yet to be fully substantiated.
And that brings another question: how did we get here in the first place? How is it that a chemical well known to mimic a hormone that regulates several key developmental processes became a key ingredient in – of all things – baby bottles?
The answers are many but they are rooted in the fact that we do not adequately test chemicals for hormonal effects before they enter consumer goods, even if those goods are specifically designed for those who are potentially the most vulnerable.
The good news is that we can fix this and there’s some momentum in Congress to do so. The Safe Chemical Act of 2010 was the first attempt to revise the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and make pre-market safety testing of chemicals routine. The bill has fallen out of consideration for the moment but stay tuned if you want to speak up about better protecting our kids from chemicals – the bill may come back into debate next year.
To learn more on the subject, please see these older Thrive posts on BPA:
David Bellinger, PhD, of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Neurology Department, discusses a 2009 study that reported that the amount of BPA that women were exposed to during pregnancy was significantly associated with parents’ views of their child’s behavior when they were 2 years old.
Pediatrician and mother, Claire McCarthy, MD, has advice for parents on how to protect their children from the known and unknown risks associated with BPA.