Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection is considering a phase-out of the chemical BPA in infant formula, and foods for babies and toddlers.
Many parents become aware of BPA when they start shopping for a new baby and are warned by friends to buy only bottles marked BPA-free. Yet what few people realize is that the vast majority of Americans have BPA in their bodies at any one time, and exposures continue to occur throughout the day, every day.
For more than a decade, academic and government scientists have been studying this chemical, widely used in consumer plastics and the linings of food cans, trying to understand what it might be doing in our bodies. This work now encompasses several hundred peer-reviewed articles — and more than 90 percent of these studies suggest that BPA can cause harm to fetuses, neonates and even adolescents and adults at doses that regulatory agencies still consider safe.
The most compelling evidence indicates that BPA alters the development of the brain and the male and female reproductive tracts of exposed rodents and monkeys. Other strong evidence suggests that animals exposed to low doses of BPA in the womb are more susceptible to certain types of cancers. Perhaps even more important are the human studies
indicating that adults with higher exposures to BPA are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, and children with higher exposures are more likely to display inappropriate behaviors.
To most scientists, these findings are not surprising. BPA is a synthetic sex hormone. It was originally designed by chemists to mimic the female hormone estrogen. Decades after its development for those pharmaceutical purposes, it started to be used in food and beverage containers.
The Maine Board of Environmental Protection is considering a phase-out of BPA in children’s food because there is strong scientific evidence suggesting this chemical has adverse health effects. In 2007, a panel of 38 independent experts assembled by the National Institutes of Health wrote that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that BPA was not safe. In 2008, the National Toxicology Program concluded that there was some concern for the effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and development of the prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at current exposure levels.
Gov. LePage has repeatedly indicated that he does not support any restrictions on the use of BPA in children’s products. In 2011, LePage stated publicly that he had examined the science on BPA, and that the worst case scenario was that “some women may have little beards” after exposure.
These comments were stunning not just because of their crass nature — one reporter called this statement “one of the weirder anecdotes” related to discussions of BPA — but because they seem to celebrate a complete lack of understanding of what BPA and other synthetic hormones can do in the bodies of infants and children.
Recently Gov. LePage indicated that he still doesn’t support action to protect Maine kids from BPA because of the FDA’s inaction. What the governor fails to consider is that the FDA’s current stance — that BPA is safe for use in food and beverage containers — is based on only two studies, both of which were industry funded, that were unable to detect any significant effects of BPA exposure.
He also fails to consider that the FDA’s heavy reliance on the two studies paid for by BPA manufacturers was heavily criticized by a panel of experts the FDA assembled. Finally, the governor seems unaware that the FDA did not consider human studies in their previous assessments of BPA safety, in spite of the fact that more and more of these studies link BPA to human diseases.
Just this month, the FDA reversed its previous decisions and banned BPA from use in baby bottles and sippy cups. Although many public health advocates believe this is an example of “the FDA showing up late to the game,” it is at least a first step forward to protect young people from this chemical. Removing BPA from all food packaging intended for children under three years of age is a logical next step that Maine can take.
Gov. LePage has said he thinks Maine should wait to enact protective policies until the science on BPA is “conclusive.” But industry funded studies suggesting that this chemical is safe are far from conclusive. Relying on a few, flawed industry funded studies to make public health decisions continues to put the health of Maine’s children at risk.
Dr. Laura Vandenberg is a postdoctoral Fellow at Tufts University. She has been researching the effects of BPA for nine years and is an author on 14 peer-reviewed studies on this chemical.