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Parents and scientists pressure retailers to phase out baby products with BPA

by Julia Dilday
Dec 02, 2008

Julia Dilday/MEDILL

Parents and scientists are leading the drive for BPA-free baby products, such as those offered by BornFree.

Concerned parents and consumers across the U.S. have successfully pushed companies to phase out baby bottles and other products containing bisphenol A (BPA), a hardening ingredient in many plastics.

Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us are phasing out baby feeding products containing BPA by the end of 2008, the chain confirmed this week.

Baby bottles at Target will be completely BPA-free by the end of January. Wal-mart is following suit and a company spokesman stated that all baby bottles will be BPA-free by mid-year in 2009.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to finalize a decision in February on new safety regulations for BPA, long under scrutiny by federal and private organizations. But many parents don't plan to wait and retailers are responding to them.

With major retailers reacting ahead of the anticipated FDA decision, manufacturers are being forced to assess changes as well.

“Vendors have to comply with what the retailers want, so everybody’s switching now to alternative products,” said Ron Vigdor, president of BornFree, a BPA-free baby product company launched in 2006.

Traditional baby products companies also are responding to parents’ concerns. Gerber, Evenflo and Playtex have all introduced BPA-free options. Companies such as BornFree and Medela have been BPA-free from the start.

“We have taken the extra steps and precaution to make sure that we have a phenomenal product,” said BornFree president Vigdor, whose company uses an alternative to BPA.

Vigdor said that when his products first hit the shelves, the potential health risks of BPA were not yet on consumers’ radars. Now, he said, most consumers have become aware of controversy surrounding BPA, and that it is important to be cautious. “If we can protect our babies as much as we can, we should,” he said.

“You don’t want to take a chance when it comes to your baby,” said Kathy Scoleri, founder of the blog. Scoleri describes her popular Web guide as a “one-stop child safety, health, well-being, eco-conscious resource, for parents.”

Scoleri, a Florida mom with one young son, published a comprehensive list of BPA-free products on her Web site late last year when she said she became fed up with the lack of accessible information about BPA-free options.

“One thing that always frustrated me was that I could always find the information and it’d say, ‘This is dangerous.’ But it never gave you an option of what to do to change it or fix it,” Scoleri said. “There was never an alternative.”

Now there are plenty.

BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastic, which is found in items such as baby bottles and reusable water bottles (such as Nalgene containers) to dental sealants and household electronics. BPA is also used to make epoxy resin, which lines all metal food cans.

BPA leaches in to food and beverages packaged and stored in containers made with the chemical. Leaching is accelerated by heating. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents who want to limit their child’s BPA intake avoid heating polycarbonate bottles in the microwave and in boiling water. The academy also recommends hand washing polycarbonate bottles, rather than using the dishwasher.

The chemical was approved by the FDA for use in food packaging in the 1960s, according to Dr. Sarah Janssen, a physician and scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The problem is that the regulations have not kept up with the progress of science,” she said.

The progress Janssen referred to includes more than 1,000 studies on animals and humans, many with conflicting results, though most point to potential BPA safety hazards.

The National Toxicology Program, a federal research agency of the National Institutes of Health, surveyed a large quantity of BPA literature and released findings in September. “We have concluded that the possibility that BPA may affect human development cannot be dismissed,” stated John Bucher, the associate director of the program, in a summary of the report. The report found “some concern for effects on the development of the prostate gland and brain and in behavioral effects in fetuses, infants and children,” according to the statement.

In mid-October, Health Canada outlawed the sale of baby bottles containing BPA across the entire country. A few days later, the NRDC petitioned the FDA to ban BPA in all food packaging.

An FDA Science Board subcommittee criticized the administration’s draft safety assessment for BPA later in October. “Margins of safety defined by FDA as ‘adequate’ are, in fact, inadequate,” the report stated.

The administration plans to respond to subcommittee findings in February 2009, if not sooner, and is “moving forward with planned research to address the potential low dose effects of bisphenol A,” wrote FDA spokesman Michael Herndon in an email.

In the meantime, the FDA has reassured consumers of the safety of low dose levels of BPA. “Current levels of exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and babies," according to an FDA statement in October.

Janssen said the FDA is basing its current position on only two studies funded by companies that make and use BPA. She said the administration should instead focus on the weight of comprehensive evidence.

“Ninety percent of studies have found evidence of harm,” Janssen said. “What FDA is mandated to do is prove there’s a reasonable certainty of safety before they approve a chemical as a food additive. When you have all these studies which have shown evidence of harm, I think it’s very hard to say there’s a reasonable certainty of safety.”
Though all humans routinely come in contact with BPA, scientists such Janssen are worried about effects on the younger population.

“We’re especially concerned about infants and small children whose bodies are still growing and developing,” Janssen said of the hormone-mimicking BPA chemical. “Exposures early in life are really important and can have impacts that aren’t realized until decades later.”

And scientists at the NRDC aren’t the only ones concerned. Scoleri said that began as a Web site to share information with close friends and quickly ballooned into a 100,000 hit per month parent hot spot.
Scoleri doesn’t claim to be an expert on parenting matters. “I’m just a mother,” she said. But she said she hopes the information she’s gathered saves other moms a little time.

“Moms have enough on their plate as it is with babies and little kids,” Scoleri said. “The last thing they need to do is spend a week of their life researching what BPA is.”

Scoleri said FDA officials reacted cautiously to avoid alarm. “They’ve been so hesitant about it because it’s such a huge market and to just turn around and say that this is something dangerous, they don’t want to put people in panic,” Scoleri said. "But now, they can’t ignore it.”