0622BPAaudioDr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, talks about the origins of bisphenol-a and its applications today.
Do you know what’s in your child’s sippy cup?
And we’re not talking about apple juice.
Back in April, the National Toxicology Program released a report outlining the possible effects of exposure to bisphenol-a, a chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic. Bisphenol-a, or BPA, is used to make plastic stronger, and so it’s used in the production of bike helmets, CDs and most plastics marked with a number seven.
That also includes most plastic baby bottles and sippy cups. And, according to the report by the National Toxicology Program, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, there is “some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants and children at current human exposures,” according to the NTP’s Web site.
“The NTP also has some concern for bisphenol-a exposure in these populations based on effects in the prostate gland, mammary gland and at an earlier age for puberty in females.”
Pretty heavy stuff for new moms to swallow these days.
“It’s kind of scary to have a child because it seems every time you turn around there’s something else. But I think that you’ll drive yourself crazy,” said Gainesville resident Gina Washington. “We worry about so many things that there’s only so much you can do.”
Washington said she gets most of her information on children’s toys and product recalls from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which allows people to sign up for alerts by e-mail. This was how Washington heard about BPA in plastic bottles and cups.
“I hadn’t ever thought about it until I got a notice from Consumer Products,” she said. “So I did make sure we didn’t have those brands.”
Cory Rumbaugh, mother to 4-year-old Lane and newborn Noah, said she did some research before the birth of her second son. But, after talking to some doctors and weighing the cost of outfitting her home with all new bottles and sippy cups, she decided to stick with what she used with her first son.
“I did my research and everything, and I decided to just keep the bottles, because it was so expensive. And I talked to some doctors and they said as long as I don’t heat up the bottles with the microwave, it shouldn’t be a problem, which I never did with my first son. ... So I just decided to keep the bottles.”
Even though, she added, she was looking forward to the opportunity to shop for the new baby.
Bisphenol-a is a chemical that is used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are primarily used in food and drink packaging, CDs, impact-resistant safety equipment and medical devices, according to the NTP and www.bisphenol-a.org, an informational Web site created by European, North American and Asian plastics manufacturers. Epoxy resins are used to coat metal products such as tin food cans, bottle tops and water pipes.
In 2004, about 2.3 billion pounds of bisphenol-a were produced, primarily for polycarbonate plastics and resins, according to the NTP.
“Polycarbonate has found its way into many uses in our lives, including water bottles and baby bottles and bicycle helmets ... all kinds of things are made out of polycarbonate plastic,” said Dr. Ted Schettler, director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit organization that researches public health issues.
“The problem is certain foods and liquids, when they come in contact with polycarbonate plastic, there are some molecules of bisphenol-a (that) will actually come out in the food or liquid, and then people will ingest them,” he said.
And that’s where the controversy lies. Bisphenol-a that resides in our bodies didn’t get there by handling iPods or wearing bike helmets; it’s primarily ingested, according to Schettler and several studies done on lab animals. But the question remains: What might it do once we’ve ingested it?
“In terms of level of concern, here’s why I’m concerned. The entire U.S. population is exposed, at low levels, to bisphenol-a, because we’re getting it from a variety of sources,” Schettler said, citing specifically a study done by the Centers for Disease Control that tested for levels of the chemicals in the population, and found about 90 percent have bisphenol-a exposure.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in scientific literature about risks of exposure to low levels of bisphenol-a, and there’s a lot of disagreement among good scientists,” he said, adding that bisphenol-a acts as estrogen in the body. “So when a fetus or newborn animal is exposed to low levels of bisphenol-a, it really sort of modifies the development of both the prostate gland in males and mammary tissue in females, so that as those animals grow up, they are more susceptible to developing cancer.
“Now I’m not saying bisphenol-a causes cancer. But what I am saying is it modifies the development of the prostate and the breast in such a way that it makes those organs more likely to develop cancer later in life.”
At least, that’s what the tests on animals have shown. “Are those same findings going to be true in people? We don’t know.”
The plastics industry counters that, while there is some migration of BPA between containers and the food in them, the level is far lower than the minimum set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
While many recent studies show a variety of levels of BPA migration into food, according to www.bisphenol-a.org, that level is less than 5 parts per billion, or “more than 4,000 times lower than the maximum acceptable dose ... established by the EPA.”
That does is .05 milligrams of BPA per kilogram of body weight.
Nevertheless, two days after the NTP released a draft version of their report, on April 16 Wal-Mart announced it was pulling all baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers and water bottles from its stores. Toys R Us quickly followed suit. The stores will be phasing out polycarbonate products into next year.
And a bill introduced earlier this month in the U.S. House of Representatives would ban the use of bisphenol-a in food and drink containers. The Senate is working on a similar bill. And some states, such as California, are considering similar measures.
The Food and Drug Administration, however, says polycarbonate plastic is safe.
“Based on our ongoing review, we believe there is a large body of evidence that indicates that FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects,” read a statement from the FDA.
The FDA said it is not recommending anyone stop using polycarbonate products, but “concerned consumers should know that several alternatives to polycarbonate baby bottles exist, including glass baby bottles.”
And that’s what Margaret Hulsey, OB patient educator and lactation consultant at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, tries to steer concerned parents towards. She said there are options out there that are not made of polycarbonate plastic, and if using them helps you sleep better at night, then go ahead and try them.
“The main thing that we’re looking at is we are now at the Lactation Center offering BPA-free models — Medela and Ameda. Of course glass is still the gold standard, but of course glass breaks, it’s heavy, so it’s tricky,” she said. “We err on the side of caution while trying not to terrorize people.”
If 2007 was the year of lead-laced toys, then 2008 might just be the year of BPA bottles.
It’s almost enough to drive a mom crazy.
“It gets frustrating because it feels like you’re wearing yourself out,” said Jennifer Turner, a Clermont resident and mother to 31/2-year-old Kayla. “It’s like you go in one direction and you try to buy the right things and do the right things, and then over here, you know, like the plastic and that sort of stuff.
“And mostly we’ve been worried about food, just the stuff that the world puts in the food,” she added. “I’ve started to buy more organic foods and try to buy as little processed things, because that’s where all the hydrogenated oils are.”
Kim Martin, coordinator for Safe Kids Gainesville/Hall County, recommended parents talk to their pediatrician first, and then take the next step that feels right to them.
“The best thing to do is to talk to their pediatrician; that’s going to be the best source,” she said. “Just make a list and the next time you’re in there with the pediatrician, just ask them and get their opinion. Because it can be overwhelming — this issue with the BPA in the plastic bottles, and everything else — eating and sleeping.”
While Safe Kids hasn’t received any calls on the issue — and, Martin added, does not have a position on either side of the debate — she also recommended parents check with the American Association of Pediatrics as well.
Schettler, from the Science and Environmental Health Network, said there are enough products on the market that parent’s don’t need to worry themselves sick over whether or not they have the right kind of baby bottle.
“You certainly can (worry), but you can also make these kinds of choices and be done with them. You can use a plastic baby bottle, but don’t use one made out of polycarbonate,” he said. “This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have polycarbonate bicycle helmets — they work very well. And people are not getting exposed from a bicycle helmet.”
And don’t get overwhelmed by the information, Martin said.
“You can worry to much,” she said. But what really matters is “as long as you’re providing for them and they’re getting good nutrition and hugs.”