Video: Safety over plastics still questioned

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/16/2008 12:08:55 PM ET 2008-09-16T16:08:55

The controversy over bisphenol A, the widely used chemical that makes plastic baby bottles and other food containers shatter-resistant, continues to grow.

Despite government assurances that low levels of the synthetic material don't harm humans, consumer groups and parents worry that BPA can leach out of plastic and become toxic, especially to babies. And a new study, released today, looked at urine samples in Americans and found that the higher the level of BPA, the more likely they were to have diabetes, heart disease and certain liver problems.

Critics charge the Food and Drug Administration has ignored warnings about health risks. In response to consumer worries about the chemical’s effects on humans, the FDA is holding a public hearing to determine whether there is danger from exposure to the estrogen-like chemical. Read on for information on what the government might do and how companies are already responding to consumer fears.

Q: What are the problems with BPA?

A: BPA is a chemical that has been in plastics for several decades. Some years ago, some researchers noted that it could mimic the effects of female hormone estrogen, which led to some theoretical concerns that it could have an effect on human health. There was no evidence of it at the time, but since then there have been several studies, mostly in rats and mice, suggesting that it can cause all kinds of problems. The issue came to a head last April when the Canadian government decided to ban BPA in products for children, especially in baby bottles. Last month a government agency called the National Toxicology Program — which makes determinations about threats or possible threats to human health from various toxins — said there was “some concern” about possible damage in children. But they don’t have any regulatory power. That power belongs to the Food and Drug Administration.

Q: What is the FDA planning to do about BPA?

A: The FDA has not officially announced what it’s going to, if anything. In a draft report that came out in August which was written by the staff, the agency said there was no evidence of risk to human health that required any action. The FDA is holding a hearing for public comment on that draft report today, Sept. 16, but there won’t be any conclusion at the end of that hearing.

There won’t be a final report about what needs to be done about BPA for the next few weeks or months, although the FDA hasn’t said when.

At that point, the FDA could say nothing needs to be done or regulators could say BPA needs to be taken out of baby products, or out of all containers. The FDA has the power to regulate the substances that are used in food containers.

Q: Has anything changed since the FDA’s draft report?

A: Two significant studies have been published since the FDA draft report came out. One study at the Yale University School of Medicine found that low doses of BPA in young primates interfered with brain function that could lead to behavioral problems. In the study on young adult monkeys, many brain synapses didn’t form properly and there were other nerve problems after daily exposure to levels considered safe by the government.

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Then, in the first big study in human beings, British researchers looked at data from urine samples taken from Americans. Almost everyone in the U.S. has some trace amounts of BPA in the body, but the study found that the higher the level of BPA in a person’s body, the more likely they were to have diabetes, heart disease and certain liver problems.

You have to caution that the British study doesn’t show cause and effect, but there are increasing numbers of scientists who are saying we need to get BPA out of plastics, at least out of stuff for babies.

Early next year the National Institutes of Health, the goverment's research center, is launching a big study involving thousands and thousands of children. It will follow them over time and look at their BPA levels and their development. But that will take years. The question now is whether something be done before then. The FDA has to decide that.

Q: While parents wait for a decision from the FDA, is there anything they should do?

A: It is at a point now where people need to look at the evidence and make their own decisions.

The chemical industry points out they think the evidence in animals doesn’t add up to danger to humans. Whatever decision is made, it will have an economic impact so should not be taken lightly.

Although there’s been no recall, a lot of companies are already taking BPA out of products intended for babies. (Wal-Mart and Toys "R" U have said they would stop selling products with the chemical next year.) There is clearly some consumer demand for it. Nalgene, one of the biggest makers of reusable water bottles, is voluntarily phasing BPA out of its products .

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