One Word: Plastic

By Christine Cupaiuolo — April 26, 2008

Not since “The Graduate” gave career advice that became a pop-culture shortcut for artificiality has so much attention been paid to plastic.

Last week, the National Toxicology Program released a draft report on bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical used in hard, clear plastic, such as Nalgene and baby bottles, as well as in the lining of baby formula containers and canned foods.

Studies in animals have linked it to hormonal changes, and the report acknowledged “some concern” that BPA may affect neural and behavioral development “in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures.”

The report “signaled a turning point in the government’s position on bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical so ubiquitous in the United States that it has been detected in the urine of 93 percent of the population over 6 years of age,” Lyndsey Layton wrote in the Washington Post, though it only called for more research into the health effects.

“What we’ve got is a warning, a signal, of some concerns,” said Mike Shelby, director of the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, who oversaw the report. “We could not dismiss the possibility that similar or related effects might occur in humans.”

Manufacturers of BPA were less than impressed. The American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers, said the report “affirms that there are no serious or high level concerns for adverse effects of bisphenol on human reproduction and development.”

Here’s some more detail on the decision:

The toxicology panel used a five-level rating system, ranging from serious concern to negligible concern. It labeled the possible cancer risk of BPA as “some concern,” in the middle of the scale. There was not enough scientific evidence to rank it as a “concern” or a “serious concern,” Shelby said.

Asked in an interview whether exposure to BPA can be eliminated, Shelby paused. “It’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s not clear that we know what all the sources of BPA exposure are. The vast majority of exposure is through food and drink — cans and bottles. But there could be trace amounts in water, dust. Your cellphone is probably made out of it.”

Since BPA is most readily absorbed through food and drink containers, health advocates have been particularly focused on how the Food and Drug Administration is regulating the chemical. An FDA spokesman declined to comment on the new report, saying the agency has not had a chance to review it.

The FDA has been under fire from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been investigating the influence of the chemical industry on the agency’s regulation of BPA in plastic liners in metal cans of baby formula.

Last month, in response to questions from lawmakers, the FDA said it had disregarded hundreds of government and academic studies about the cancer risks of BPA and used just two studies funded by the chemical industry to determine that the chemical is safe.

Kinda makes you not want to trust the government on this one.

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the north are moving more swiftly on BPA. Health Canada, the main government health department, declared BPA a “toxic chemical” and the Canadian government moved to ban polycarbonate infant bottles.

The health minister, Tony Clement, told reporters that after reviewing 150 research papers on B.P.A. and conducting its own studies, his department concluded that the chemical posed the most risk for newborns and children up to the age of 18 months. The minister said that animal studies suggest “there will be behavioral and neural symptoms later in life.”

Not only are potentially unsafe exposure levels to B.P.A. lower for children than adults, Mr. Clement said that cleaning infant bottles with boiling causes the release of the chemical into their contents.

The Canadian government found no current risk to adults but said it would begin monitoring BPA exposure of 5,000 people between now and 2009, with possible additional action to come if such research indicates any danger.

When the U.S. report by the National Toxicology Program was released, a spokeswoman for the International Formula Council, which represents baby food makers, said, according to the AP, “‘the overwhelming scientific evidence supports the safety’ of bisphenol, adding that no foreign governments have restricted or banned its use.”

What bad timing. Since that’s no longer the case, the IFC will have to come up with another excuse not to prioritize the health of infants and young children.

For more in-depth reading on the health concerns and scientific debate around BPA, check out “The Plastics Revolution,” published in the Washington Post earlier this week.

The author, Ranit Mishori, a family physician and faculty member at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, also looks at the debate over phthalates — chemical compounds that improve the longevity, durability and flexibility of plastic. In animal studies, these compounds have been linked to cancers and genital abnormalities, especially in males.

Again, the Unites States lags behind other countries, as phthalates are already banned in the manufacture of toys in most European countries. California took action on its own, implementing a ban that goes into effect in 2009 on some phthalates found in toys and teethers. A dozen other states are considering similar bans.

But it’s not as easy as banning items that children like to put in their mouths. Phthlates are also found in commonly used personal care products, including shampoos and deodorants and perfumes — for more info., see our previous post on cosmetics and phthalates.

For a useful Q&A on the health risk related to BPA and tips on lowering exposure, read Tara Parker-Pope’s column, “A Hard Plastic is Raising Hard Questions.”

I have a collection of Nalgene bottles and have been slowly transitioning away from my much beloved, wide-mouth hiking staple. But Nalgene isn’t wasting any more time (or dollars): The company has decided to turn to other plastics that do not contain BPA.

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