Into the mouths of babes ... and it may not be safe

Chicago TribuneApril 17, 2007 

— Whole Foods now carries Born Free baby bottles, a brand advertised as "safer" because they are made with plastic free of bisphenol A.

And Medela, a company that makes breast-feeding accessories, will no longer use materials made with bisphenol A (BPA) in any of its breast-pump kits or components. But Philips Avent, a global electronics/baby-care products company, has no plans to follow suit. Like most baby bottles on the market, including Dr. Brown's, Evenflo, Gerber and Playtex, Avent containers are made of shatterproof polycarbonate plastic manufactured using BPA.

Bisphenol A leaches from baby bottles with regular washings, even if the bottles are not heated. And in low doses, BPA has been shown to affect the reproductive system of rodents. Other studies have linked low doses of BPA to cancers, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes and even hyperactivity.

But can BPA hurt the development of a human fetus or a baby? Or are products like Born Free bottles a clever marketing gimmick designed to play on our fears?

An independent panel convened by the federal Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR) is evaluating the scientific literature on the compound.

The meeting was called, in part, to address public concern. The scientists are also looking at bisphenol A because of the widespread human exposure -- more than 6 billion pounds are manufactured worldwide annually -- and the evidence of reproductive toxicity in laboratory animal studies. Data shows that BPA may mimic the natural female sex hormone estradiol.

But some experts already are criticizing the draft version of the report, citing factual errors. University of Missouri biology professor Frederick vom Saal, a leading BPA researcher who is not on the panel, said the 372-page draft report is "biased in favor of industry studies." He also believes it was written by people "who are obviously completely ignorant of basic endocrinology, which is required to evaluate a chemical that acts like the sex hormone estradiol."

The report "is not accurate, and that is a serious problem," said vom Saal, who plans to testify before the panel Monday in Washington, D.C., during the comment session.

Still, even if the scientists determine BPA poses a danger to humans, what then? We're already swimming in it: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found bisphenol A in the urine of more than 95 percent of the people tested.

In addition to polycarbonate plastics, BPA is used in flame retardants and several types of resins. That means BPA is in reusable food and drink products such as Nalgene bottles and microwaveable food containers, children's toys, electronic equipment, CDs, DVDs, automobiles and sports helmets. Resins are used to coat metal products such as food cans, bottle tops and water-supply pipes. And bisphenol A is found in some polymers used in dental sealants and tooth coatings.

Avent, acquired last May by Royal Philips Electronics, stands by its product. In fact, the bottles play an important role in child safety because the polycarbonate prevents cracking and shattering, said spokeswoman Shannon Jenest. And Avent isn't aware of "independent laboratory studies that have measured the effect of BPA in animals," even though the information is a Google search away.

"Since we strive to remain aligned with federal regulations, we will look to those governing bodies to determine if a change needs to be made," Jenest said.

Unfortunately, protecting consumers from toxic chemicals isn't the government's strong suit. Only a small percentage of the estimated 80,000 chemicals registered for commercial use in the U.S. have been tested for safety.

Until more is known about the real dangers of BPA, choose glass or supposedly safer-plastic baby bottles offered by Born Free (made with polyamide) or Medela (polypropylene) so bisphenol A can't leach into the milk. For sippy cups and water bottles, plastics labeled No. 1, No. 2 or No. 5 in the recycling triangle are considered safer. Try to keep your child from putting plastic toys -- especially those designed for older children -- in his mouth.

And always use glass, rather than plastic, to microwave food and liquid.

Contact Julie Deardorff: jdeardorff@tribune.com; Julie's Health Club blog: www.chicagotribune.com/julie.

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