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Public Health Council Weak on BPA Ban

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Almost a year after the Patrick administration called for new regulations on the potentially harmful chemical bisphenol-A (or BPA), state health officials have responded, with a policy that activists say falls far short of what's needed.

Last week, the Mass. Public Health Council voted unanimously to ban the use of the plastics hardener BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. The move comes after mounting concern among health professionals about the chemical, which research has linked to a range of health problems including cancer, diabetes, early puberty, sexual dysfunctions, hyperactivity and obesity. Fetuses, babies and young children are considered to be especially at risk; the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued guidelines for parents who want to reduce their children's exposure to the chemical, pointing to "concerns over the possible harmful effects BPA may have on humans, particularly on infants and children."

The plastics and chemical industries insist that BPA poses no health risks, pointing to competing research that says the chemical is metabolized and excreted without accumulating in the body—a stance that for years was echoed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Earlier this year, however, the FDA, saying it has "some concern" about potential health risks, especially on the very young, announced a $30 million study of the chemical. The report is expected to be released in 2012.

The states of Connecticut and Vermont have laws banning the use of BPA in bottles, baby cups, and all reusable food and beverage containers.

In March, Gov. Deval Patrick called for a ban on BPA in certain consumer products. "We are taking this action as a precaution to protect vulnerable children in the light of evidence about potential dangers of BPA," the governor said at the time. The Mass. Department of Public Health, meanwhile, urges families not to store baby formula or expressed breast milk in plastic bottles made with BPA, and recommends that pregnant and nursing moms avoid food and beverages that come in containers made with the chemical.

Given those concerns, last week's vote by the Public Health Council feels thin. While the new policy covers bottles and sippy cups, it does not apply to formula cans and baby-food containers—meaning those safe bottles can nonetheless be filled with formula from BPA-containing cans. In addition, the rules will have no effect on food consumed by pregnant women, leaving their fetuses potentially vulnerable.

The new policy was met with dismay by activists including the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, a coalition of health and environmental groups that has pushed for stricter rules regarding BPA. In a statement after the PHC vote, Hilary Branch, director of Baystate Pediatric Environmental Health Clinic in Springfield, said, "I am sorry that the council was inconsistent about limiting children's exposure to BPA. If BPA is harmful it only makes sense to limit BPA's presence in all food contact materials that cause potential exposure to children."

While the Patrick administration signaled early on that it wasn't interested in a ban that went beyond bottles and sippy cups, "Public Health Council members could have stood up and said, 'We want more.' But they didn't," Elizabeth Saunders, legislative director for Clean Water Action, told the Advocate after the vote.

"What they say is that the science wouldn't back them up enough in going further, which I disagree with. I think it would," Saunders continued. "I think the chemical industry would disagree with it and give them a hard time about it."

Despite last week's disappointing news, the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow will continue to push for more stringent rules regarding BPA. The PHC, Saunders notes, left open the possibility of revisiting the issue in the future, and activists also expect to see a BPA bill introduced in the state Legislature in the coming session.

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